Key Points about Renal Cell Carcinoma

  • Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer, and it most often occurs in people between the ages of 40 and 60.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, urinalysis and physical exams to diagnose renal cell carcinoma.
  • Treatment for renal cell carcinoma may involve surgery, medication or other cancer treatments.


Renal cell cancer is also called kidney cancer or renal cell adenocarcinoma. It is a disease that occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both of the lining of tubules in the kidneys. The tubules in the kidneys clean and filter blood and remove waste. This type of cancer is different than renal pelvis transitional cell carcinoma, which starts in the part of the kidney that collects urine and drains it to the ureters.

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer. If the condition is diagnosed early, treatment is typically effective.

Renal cell carcinoma causes

The cause of renal cell carcinoma occurs when cancerous (abnormal) cells grow out of control. The exact cause of why this happens is not known. However, a history of smoking does increase the risk of developing this cancer. Research is underway that suggests that two genes on the short arm of chromosome 3 may be involved in the development of this type of cancer.

Renal cell carcinoma risk factors

The following factors that may increase your risk for developing renal cell carcinoma are:

  • Being a smoker
  • Being between the ages of 50 and 70
  • Being obese
  • Having acquired kidney disease and/or being on dialysis
  • Having a family history of renal cell cancer
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having been exposed to certain dyes, asbestos, metals or herbicides
  • Having hepatitis C
  • Having von Hippel-Lindau disease (an inherited condition)
  • Taking high amounts of pain medications – such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol) – over long periods

Renal cell carcinoma symptoms

In its early stages, renal cell carcinoma may not have any symptoms. In later stages, as the tumor grows, the following signs and symptoms may appear:

  • A lump you can feel on your side, belly or lower back
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Hematuria (blood in your urine)
  • Feeling tired
  • Fever
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lower back pain on one side
  • Sweating while sleeping
  • Unintentional weight loss

Renal cell carcinoma diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy- in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your kidney. We send the sample to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan- your doctor may order a CT scan of your kidneys. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body.
  • Ultrasound - your doctor may order an ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to create detailed images of your abdomen.
  • Urinalysis - your doctor may order this test, which checks a sample of your urine for abnormal levels of blood, protein or bacteria. These can be signs of problems with your kidneys.

Renal cell carcinoma treatments

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your renal cell carcinoma and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Ablation- during this treatment, your doctor uses extreme cold or radio waves to destroy cancerous cells.
  • Biological therapies- these types of therapies involve using the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
  • Chemotherapy- this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. We give chemotherapy medication through a pill taken orally (by mouth) or a liquid given intravenously (injected into a vein).
  • Nephrectomy- during this surgical procedure, your surgeon removes part of or all of one of your kidneys. There are different types of surgeries, including partial nephrectomy, simple nephrectomy, radical nephrectomy. Most people can live a healthy life with only one remaining kidney, but the removal of both kidneys will require dialysis.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a urologic oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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