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Kidney cancer

Key points

  • Kidney cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the UK.
  • Most people who get kidney cancer are over 60 and it affects more men than women.
  • The most common symptom of kidney cancer is blood in your urine.
  • Surgery is the main treatment for kidney cancer.

 

Kidney cancer (renal cancer) is a lump created by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells that starts in your kidney

How cancer develops

The kidneys

You have two kidneys, which are bean-shaped organs found near the middle of your back, either side of your spine. Your kidneys are part of your urinary system. They filter your blood to remove excess water and salt as well as waste products, which are removed from your body in your urine.

Illustration showing the position of the kidneys and surrounding structures

Your kidneys also produce three important hormones, which are chemicals produced by your body.

  • Erythropoietin helps your bone marrow to make red blood cells.
  • Renin controls your blood pressure.
  • Calcitriol (a form of vitamin D) helps your bowel to absorb calcium from your diet.

About kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the UK. About 9,600 people are diagnosed each year. Most people who get kidney cancer are over 60 and it affects more men than women. It’s rare for people under 50 to get kidney cancer. However, a type of kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour (also known as nephroblastoma) affects very young children.

Usually only one of your kidneys is affected. Cancer can grow through your kidney and spread to other parts of your body (through your blood or lymphatic system). Your lymphatic system is made up of the tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease. These include your bone marrow, spleen, thymus and lymph nodes. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Types of kidney cancer

There are several types of kidney cancer. Renal cell cancer (RCC) is the most common in adults. More than eight in 10 people with kidney cancer in the UK have this type. In RCC, the cancerous cells are in the lining of your tubules. These are the smallest tubes inside your kidneys that help to filter your blood and make urine.

Other types of kidney cancer include the following.

  • Transitional cell cancer (TCC) affects part of your kidney called the renal pelvis. About eight in 100 people who get kidney cancer in the UK have TCC.
  • Wilms' tumour can affect children, most often those aged under five. It's different to kidney cancer in adults and is uncommon – about 70 children in the UK develop Wilms' tumour each year.

This factsheet will focus on RCC.

Symptoms of kidney cancer

In the early stages, you probably won't have any symptoms of kidney cancer. As the cancer grows, the most common symptom is blood in your urine.

It’s possible that you might feel a lump or swelling in your back, although most kidney cancers are too small to feel.

Other symptoms of kidney cancer may include:

  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • a fever
  • sweating at night
  • pain in your back or side
  • feeling generally unwell

High blood pressure and anaemia may also be signs of kidney cancer.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.

Causes of kidney cancer

The exact reasons why you may develop kidney cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, there are a number of things that can increase your risk of developing kidney cancer.

  • Smoking – the longer you smoke for and the more you smoke, the greater your risk.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • A family history of kidney cancer.
  • Having certain inherited conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease.
  • Having kidney disease (dialysis treatment means you’re more likely to develop kidney cysts, which increase your risk of kidney cancer).
  • Previous treatment for testicular cancer or cervical cancer.
  • Having high blood pressure – this may be caused by the condition, the medicines used to treat it or both.
  • Taking excessive amounts of over-the-counter painkillers – see our frequently asked questions for more information.

Diagnosis of kidney cancer

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

Your GP may test a sample of your urine with a dipstick to check if there is any blood in it. He or she may also take a blood sample for testing.

Your GP may refer you to see a urologist. A urologist is a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect the urinary system. You may then be offered further tests, which may include the following.

  • Ultrasound scan. This uses sound waves to produce an image of your kidneys and can show any growths.
  • CT scan. This uses X-rays to make a three-dimensional image of your kidneys and the rest of your organs.
  • MRI scan. This uses magnets and radio waves to produce images of the inside of your kidneys.
  • An image-guided biopsy. In this test, your doctor will take a sample of tissue from your kidney. He or she will use an ultrasound or CT scanner to find the right area. The sample will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine the type of cells and if these are cancerous.

If your doctor diagnoses kidney cancer, you may need further tests to find its size and exact position.

Treatment of kidney cancer

The type of treatment you have will depend on the type and size of your cancer, and whether it has spread.

Surgery

Surgery is the main treatment for kidney cancer. If kidney cancer is at an early stage, it may be possible to cure it with surgery. If your cancer has progressed, surgery can control its growth and relieve your symptoms.

Your surgeon may remove your whole kidney and nearby lymph nodes in what is called a radical nephrectomy. Alternatively, he or she may just remove the affected part of your kidney in a partial nephrectomy.

You can have open surgery, in which your surgeon will make one large cut in your abdomen (tummy). Alternatively, you may be able to have keyhole surgery.

Other surgical treatments may be suitable if you have smaller kidney tumours, or if you aren’t healthy enough to have conventional surgery. These include the following.

  • Percutaneous radiofrequency ablation uses heat to destroy cancer cells. You can have this under local anaesthesia. This completely blocks pain from the area around your kidney and you will stay awake during the procedure. Your surgeon will place one or more needle-like electrodes through your skin into the cancer and pass an electrical current into it. This will heat the cancer cells and destroy them. You may need to have this treatment more than once.
  • Cryotherapy uses very cold temperatures to destroy cancer cells. It’s usually done under general anaesthesia, which means you will be asleep during the procedure. Your surgeon will place one or more probes into the cancer and pass liquid nitrogen through them to freeze and destroy cancer cells.
  • High-intensity focused ultrasound uses sound waves to produce high temperatures inside cancer cells to destroy them. It may be done under local or general anaesthesia. However, this treatment is newer than other treatments, so it’s not known exactly how effective it is.

Non-surgical treatments

Radiotherapy
Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells. Your doctor may offer you this treatment to shrink your cancer if it’s causing you pain. You may also have it to treat cancer that has spread to other parts of your body, such as your bones or brain.

Targeted therapy
Targeted therapy (also called biological therapy) uses medicines that are designed to stop cancer cells growing. For example, they might block signals that tell cells to grow, or stop the cancer from making new blood vessels. Your doctor may offer you targeted therapy if your kidney cancer has spread or after surgery to remove your tumour. You may be invited to take part in a clinical trial of a new targeted treatment.

Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy isn't often used to treat kidney cancer, but your doctor might offer it to you in combination with another treatment.

Prevention of kidney cancer

You may be able to reduce your risk of developing kidney cancer if you make changes to your lifestyle. These include:

  • stopping smoking
  • losing excess weight
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet


Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2014.

Find out more about our health editors

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.


  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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