What is kidney cancer?
Kidney cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the kidney. The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma (RCC), accounting for about 90% of all cases. Usually only one kidney is affected, but in rare cases the cancer may develop in both kidneys.
Other less common types include:
- Urothelial carcinoma (also called transitional cell carcinoma) which can begin in the ureter or renal pelvis where the kidney and ureter meet. It is generally treated like bladder cancer.
- Wilms tumour, which is most common in younger children although it is still rare.
It is estimated that more than 4,500 people were diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2022. The average age at diagnosis is 64 years old.
Kidney cancer is the seventh most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, and it is estimated that one in 65 people will be diagnosed by the time they are 85.
Kidney cancer signs and symptoms
In its early stages, kidney cancer often does not produce any symptoms.
Symptoms may include:
blood in the urine or passing urine frequently or during the night, change in urine colour – dark, rusty or brown
pain or a dull ache in the side or lower back that is not due to an injury
a lump in the abdomen
rapid, unexplained weight loss
fever not caused by a cold or flu.
These symptoms can occur with other illnesses and so they don’t necessarily mean you have kidney cancer. If you have any concerns, contact your doctor.
Causes of kidney cancer
The causes of kidney cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:
smoking – smokers have almost twice the risk of developing kidney cancer as nonsmokers
workplace exposure to chemicals such as arsenic, some metal degreasers or cadmium used in mining, welding, farming and painting
a family history of kidney cancer
being overweight or obese
high blood pressure
having advanced kidney disease
being male - men are more likely to develop kidney cancer.
Diagnosis of kidney cancer
Tests to diagnose kidney cancer include:
Blood and urine tests
These tests do not diagnose kidney cancer but will check your general health and for any signs of a problem in the kidney.
A biopsy removes a tissue sample for examination under a microscope and is a common way to diagnose cancer. However, biopsies are not often needed for kidney cancer before treatment ad imaging scans are good at showing if a kidney tumour is cancer.
If you do have a biopsy, it will be a core needle biopsy where an interventional radiologist will put a hollow needle through the skin to remove a tissue sample.
Treatment for kidney cancer
The main treatment for kidney cancer is surgery, alone or with radiation therapy (radiotherapy) and will depend on the extent of the cancer.
If you are a smoker, your doctors will advise you quit before you start treatment.
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
If small tumours are found in your kidney your doctor may recommend active surveillance or observation as it is likely that the tumours will not be aggressive and may not grow in your lifetime. You will have regular ultrasounds or CT scans to monitor the tumours.
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.
Radiofrequency ablation heats the tumour with high energy waves in order to kill the cancer cells. Your doctor will insert a needle into the tumour and an electrical current is passed into the tumour.
Immunotherapy works to enhance your body's own immune system. Immunotherapy is an option for people with advanced kidney cancer. Cytokines (proteins that activate the immune system) can be given intravenously or orally, and may shrink the cancer.
Targeted therapies may be recommended by your doctor if you have advanced kidney cancer or your cancer is growing quickly. Targeted therapies target specific molecules in cells to block cell growth. Targeted therapy drugs are usually given in the form of tablets or intraveneously.
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) have been trialled in people with advanced kidney cancer and found to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs.
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)
Standard radiation therapy is not effective in treating primary kidney cancer but it may be used in advanced kidney cancer to shrink tumours and relieve symptoms.
In some cases of kidney cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.
As well as slowing the spread of kidney cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.
Treatment TeamDepending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:
- GP (General Practitioner) - looks after your general health and works with your specialists to coordinate treatment.
- Urologist- specialises in the treatment of diseases of the urinary system (male and female) and the male reproductive system
- Nephrologist- diagnoses and treats conditions that cause kidney (renal) failure or impairment.
- Medical oncologist - prescribes and coordinates the course of chemotherapy.
- Radiation oncologist - prescribes and coordinates radiation therapy treatment.
- Radiologist- interprets diagnostic scans (including CT, MRI and PET scans).
- Cancer nurse - assists with treatment and provides information and support throughout your treatment.
- Cancer care coordinators- coordinate your care, liaise with the multidisciplinary team and support you and your family throughout treatment.
- Dietitian - recommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery.
- Other allied health professionals - such as social workers, pharmacists, and counsellors.
Screening for kidney cancer
There is currently no national screening program for kidney cancer available in Australia.
Preventing kidney cancer
Not smoking or quitting smoking. Up to one third of kidney cancers are thought to be due to smoking.
Prognosis for kidney cancer
It is not possible for a doctor to predict the exact course of a disease, as it will depend on each person's individual circumstances. However, your doctor may give you a prognosis, the likely outcome of the disease, based on the type of kidney cancer you have, the test results, the rate of tumour growth, as well as your age, fitness and medical history.
In most cases, the earlier that kidney cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosis.
- Understanding Kidney Cancer, Cancer Council Australia, © 2020. Last medical review of source booklet: November 2020.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer data in Australia. Canberra: AIHW, 2022.
This information was last updated January 2023.
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