Kidney cancer

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Kidney cancer, or renal cancer, is a form of cancer that starts in your kidneys. Find out about the different types of kidney cancer and the treatment available.

What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer, or renal cancer, is a form of cancer that starts in your kidneys. Find out about the different types of kidney cancer and the treatment available.

Types of kidney cancer

Renal cell cancer is the most common form of kidney cancer that makes up more than 80% of kidney cancers and starts in the tubules (tiny tubes in the kidneys).

Other types of kidney cancer include:

  • Transitional cell cancer of the kidney or ureter – When cancer starts in the transitional cells lining the renal pelvis or ureter

  • Wilms' tumour – Kidney cancer that affects children

What causes kidney cancer?

It's not precisely known what causes kidney cancer, but doctors think the following factors increase your risk:

  • Family history of kidney cancer

  • Smoking

  • Obesity

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Long-term use of dialysis (treatment for kidney failure)

  • Older age (it generally affects people in their 60s and 70s)

  • Certain inherited syndromes

Kidney cancer prevention

The best ways to help prevent kidney cancer from developing are giving up smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, and controlling high blood pressure. If you could benefit from making any of these changes, talk to a doctor to see how they can support you.

Kidney cancer symptoms

At first, there are often no noticeable symptoms, and kidney cancer may be detected during tests for other conditions. If you do have symptoms, they can include:

  • Peeing blood, or urine that is pink, red or cola coloured

  • Constant pain around the lower back or in your side

  • A lump or swollen area in your side

  • Tiredness

  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss.

Kidney cancer diagnosis

If you notice any of the signs of kidney cancer, talk to a doctor. They will ask about your symptoms and examine any lumps or swollen areas. They may also take a pee sample and a blood test to help rule out any other possible causes of the symptoms.

If the doctor thinks it could be kidney cancer, they'll refer you for more specialist tests. These might include:

  • Ultrasound – A scan that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the kidneys

  • CT scan – Takes a series of X-rays to build up a detailed 3D picture

  • MRI scan – A scan that makes detailed images of the kidneys using magnetic fields and radio waves

  • Biopsy – A small tissue sample of your kidney is taken for analysis

  • Cytoscopy – Checks for problems in the bladder via a thin tube that's inserted into your kidneys.

If kidney cancer is confirmed, you may be given a PET scan. This is a detailed body scan that can help to show if the cancer has spread.

If you're diagnosed with kidney cancer, it will be graded from one to four, depending on how big it is and how far it's spread, with one being the smallest.

Kidney cancer treatment

The treatment you receive will depend on what grade kidney cancer you have, whether it's spread anywhere else in your body and your general health and fitness levels.

A multidisciplinary team will recommend the most appropriate treatment for your needs. The team might include a specialist surgeon (urologist), a cancer specialist (oncologist), a specialist in scans and X-rays (radiologist), cancer nurses and others.

When it hasn't spread beyond the kidney, kidney cancer can usually be successfully treated with an operation. If cancer has spread, it may not be possible to cure the cancer, but a range of treatments can help to treat symptoms and slow down its progression.

Treatment for kidney cancer may include:

  • Surgery – Either a partial nephrectomy to remove part of the kidney or a radical nephrectomy to remove the whole kidney. This is the most common form of treatment

  • Ablation therapy – Using heat or freezing treatment to destroy the cancerous cells

  • Targeted/biological therapy – Medication taken daily to stop cancer from spreading and growing

  • Embolisation – Treatment that blocks the blood supply to the tumour and encourages it to shrink

  • Radiotherapy – Using radiation to target and destroy cancerous cells, often recommended when cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi