Know your risk for kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is cancer that begins in the kidneys, two bean-shaped organs that filter your blood and produce urine. Your kidneys sit just under your ribs, on either side of your spine. The Latin word for kidney is renal, so kidney cancer is sometimes also called renal cancer. The most common type is called renal cell cancer.

Many of the risk factors for kidney cancer are beyond your control—having certain genetic diseases, prior kidney disease or a family history of kidney cancer can all put you at risk. But there are some things you can control.

If you are a smoker, quitting smoking or even cutting back can lower your risk. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about how to keep it at a healthy level. Maintaining a healthy weight can also lower your risk of kidney cancer.

Sometimes kidney cancer has a diagnosis before it has symptoms

Kidney cancer often doesn't have any symptoms until a tumor has grown large enough to cause problems. For many people, kidney cancer is discovered when they have an imaging test for some other health concern and a kidney mass is detected on the scan.

When it does cause symptoms, these can include:

  • Pain in your back or side
  • Blood in the urine
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Swelling in your legs or feet
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Recurrent fever not caused by a cold or the flu

These symptoms can often look or feel similar to symptoms of other illnesses, so talk to your doctor. Whether you're having symptoms or not, to get a clear diagnosis, you’ll need:

  • Imaging tests like an MRI, CT, X-ray or ultrasound
  • Blood and urine tests
You might also need special imaging tests that look at the structure of your kidneys and check for any issues with the flow of blood and urine. These can include:
  • Intravenous pyelogram – This is a series of kidney X-rays that uses injected dyes to look for kidney tumors or masses. It also checks for any problems with urine flow.
  • Renal angiography – These kidney X-rays use dyes to check the blood flow in and around your kidneys.

Depending on your test results, you may also need a biopsy. Biopsy means that a small sample of tissue is removed and sent to a lab. A doctor called a pathologist will look at it under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

What you need to know about kidney cancer treatments

The most common treatment for kidney cancer is surgery, called a nephrectomy. Surgery options include:

  • Partial nephrectomy removes only the part of the kidney that has the tumor.
  • Simple nephrectomy removes the kidney itself.
  • Radical nephrectomy removes the kidney and the surrounding glands and tissue.

Even if one kidney is removed completely, the other kidney is usually still able to do the work of both kidneys.

Other treatments for kidney cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation uses high-dose X-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy uses medicines to kill specific cancer cells.
  • Biological therapy (immunotherapy) is a treatment that uses your body's own immune system to kill cancer cells.
  • Arterial embolization is a treatment where the main blood vessel of the kidney is clogged to shrink tumors.

Your specific treatment plan may vary based on your unique needs. Talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for you.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.