Your kidneys are two bean-shaped organs that clear waste from your blood and produce urine. They also help control blood pressure and make red blood cells.
Kidney cancer happens when cells in one or both kidneys grow out of control. Cancer cells form tumors that make it difficult for normal cells to function.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), kidney cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the United States. Every year, more than 65,000 people get kidney cancer, and about 14,000 die from the disease.
There are many different kinds of kidney cancer. The most common one is renal cell carcinoma. About 90% of all kidney cancers are renal cell carcinomas.
Am I Likely to Get Kidney Cancer?
Doctors don’t always know exactly what causes kidney cancer. They do know that smoking tobacco doubles your chance of getting it. Other kidney cancer risk factors are:
- A family history of kidney cancer.
- Being male.
- Being overweight.
- Being over age 45.
- Exposure to certain chemicals at work.
- Having a Black, American Indian, or Alaskan Native heritage.
- Having high blood pressure and/or diabetes.
- Having kidney stones and/or chronic kidney disease.
- Having thyroid cancer.
- Rare genetic conditions.
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What Are the First Signs of Kidney Cancer?
The symptoms of kidney cancer are similar to several other diseases. It’s important to see your doctor right away if you have:
- Blood in your urine.
- Fever that doesn’t go away.
- Loss of appetite.
- Lower back pain.
- Pain in your side.
- Swelling/a mass that can be felt during a clinical evaluation in the kidney area or abdomen.
- Unexplained tiredness.
- Unexplained weight loss.
How Will My Doctor Know I Have Kidney Cancer?
Your doctor will ask about your health history and do a physical exam. If they suspect you have kidney cancer, your doctor will order some tests.
- Urinalysis: Lab workers will check your urine to see if it contains blood or cancer cells.
- Blood chemistry tests: These tests show how well the kidneys are working.
- Complete blood count: People with kidney cancer often have low red blood cell counts.
- Ultrasound: Uses sound waves to take pictures of your kidneys and can also help guide a biopsy needle into a tumor.
- Kidney biopsy: A small sample of tissue is taken from the tumor. Sometimes this is the only sure way to tell if a tumor is cancerous.
- Chest x-ray: Will show if cancer has spread to the lungs.
- CT scan: Special x-rays that take detailed pictures of organs to see if cancer has spread.
- MRI scan: Radio waves and magnets take pictures of soft tissue to see if cancer has spread.
Is Kidney Cancer Curable?
The treatment for kidney cancer — and its outcome — depends on many factors. They include your age, the stage of the disease, and how fast it’s spreading. However, when detected early, doctors have a very good chance of curing kidney cancer. Even advanced cases benefit from the kidney cancer treatments available from UPMC.
Here are the most common ways doctors treat kidney cancer:
- Surgery: This is the most common way to treat kidney cancer. Doctors remove the tumor and sometimes part or all of the affected kidney. New laparoscopic techniques mean shorter hospital stays and faster recovery times.
- Tumor ablation: This is an option for people who are too sick to have surgery. This method employs extreme heat or cold to destroy the cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy: This treatment boosts your immune system to attack kidney cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: This treatment uses drugs that target cancer cells and are taken as a pill or given through a vein. Unlike chemotherapy, these drugs target cancer cells and don’t affect normal cells. They have different side effects than chemotherapy.
- Chemotherapy: Cancer-fighting drugs are given through a vein or taken as pills. Chemotherapy usually doesn’t work well for kidney cancer, but doctors may try it if other treatments fail.
The treatment for kidney cancer — and its outcome — depends on many factors. They include your age, the stage of the disease, and how fast it’s spreading. Doctors sometimes use multiple treatments together to fight the disease.
Expanding Care at UPMC
At UPMC, urologists and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center oncologists collaborate on your treatment plan — sometimes using multiple treatments together to fight the disease.
Urologist Ricardo G. Alvim, MD, says immunotherapy is a game changer for patients with stage IV diagnoses.
“Half of patients who receive immunotherapy live five years longer than similar patients who don’t receive the treatment,” says Dr. Alvim, who sees patients in Hermitage, New Castle, and Sewickley. “This was impossible to achieve a decade ago.”
Dr. Alvim stresses that following up on your cancer care is a lifetime commitment and is hopeful that by expanding these services to new locations, it will be easier for patients to continue to follow up.
“While removing part of your kidney is the gold standard treatment for small kidney tumors, these patients have a 5% chance of developing cancer on their other kidney,” says Dr. Alvim.
Learn more and schedule an appointment by calling 412-692-4100.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
Connect with UPMC
The UPMC Department of Urology offers a wide variety of specialized care for diseases of the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive organs, including erectile dysfunction, kidney stones, urinary incontinence, prostate cancer, and more. We have a multifaceted team of physicians and researchers working together to provide the best care to both children and adults. Our team is nationally renowned for expertise in highly specialized technologies and minimally invasive surgical techniques. To find a provider near you, visit our website.
About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.