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Kidney cancer

about this glossary tool

Kidney cancer is the seventh most common cancer diagnosed in Australian men and eleventh most common cancer in women.1

The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma, accounting for about 90% of all cases. Usually only one kidney is affected, but in rare cases the cancer may develop in both kidneys.

See our understanding kidney cancer booklet.

Incidence and mortality

There were 3082 new cases of kidney cancer diagnosed in Australia in 2012. Kidney cancer is more common in men - the risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 48 for men compared to 1 in 93 for women.

In 2013, there were 962 deaths resulting from kidney cancer in Australia.


There is no routine screening test for kidney cancer.

Symptoms and diagnosis

In its early stages, kidney cancer often does not produce any symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

  • blood in the urine (haematuria)
  • pain or a dull ache in the side or lower back that is not due to an injury
  • a lump in the abdomen
  • constant tiredness
  • rapid, unexplained weight loss
  • fever not caused by a cold or flu.

Tests to diagnose kidney cancer include:

  • urine test
  • cytoscopy
  • blood tests
  • imaging tests - ultrasound, chest x-ray, CT scan, MRI, PET scan or bone scan, intravenous pyelography.


A CT scan, bone (radioisotope) scan and chest x-ray are done to determine the extent of the cancer.

The most common staging system used for kidney cancer is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.


The causes of kidney cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • smoking
  • overuse of pain relievers containing phenacetin (this chemical is now banned)
  • workplace exposure to asbestos or cadmium (construction workers, dock workers, painters and printers)
  • a family history of kidney cancer
  • being male: men are more likely to develop kidney cancer than women.


Not smoking or quitting smoking. Up to one third of kidney cancers are thought to be due to smoking.


The main treatment for kidney cancer is surgery, alone or with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy.

A radical nephrectomy (removal of the affected kidney) is the most common type of surgery for renal cell carcinoma. A partial nephrectomy (removal of part of the kidney) may be an option for people who have a small tumour in one kidney (less than 4cm), people with cancer in both kidneys and those who have only one working kidney.

Immunotherapy is a treatment option for people with kidney cancer metastases. Cytokines (proteins that activate the immune system) can be given intravenously or orally, and may shrink the cancer.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) have been trialled in people with advanced kidney cancer and found to cause fewer side-effects than chemotherapy drugs.


An individual's prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. In most cases, the earlier that kidney cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosis. The five year survival rate for Australians diagnosed with kidney cancer is 72%.

For more information, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call).

1) Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, which is the most commonly diagnosed cancer according to general practice and hospitals data, however there is no reporting of cases to cancer registries.


For more information



  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2012. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2012. Cancer series no. 74. Cat. no. CAN 70. Canberra: AIHW.

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This page was last updated on: Thursday, October 6, 2016

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