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What is Renal Cell Cancer?

We normally have two kidneys about the size of your fist, located above the waist and behind your abdominal organs, one on both sides of the backbone.

Renal cell cancer is a malignant tumor found in the kidney lining in the very small tubes that clean and filter the blood, remove waste matter, and produce urine; the urine is then transported from each kidney through the ureter (a long tube) into the bladder, where it is stored until it passes through the urethra and out of the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Renal Cell Cancer

There may be no signs or symptoms of renal cell cancer in the beginning, but as the tumor grows, one or more of the following may develop:

  • Bloody urine, pink, red, or brownish in color (the primary symptom)
  • An abdominal lump
  • Loss of appetite
  • Ongoing pain in your side
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of weight for no apparent reason
  • Anemia
  • Fever that comes and goes

Should you experience any of these, check with your doctor, as the conditions may also indicate some other medical problem.

Risk Factors for Renal Cell Cancer

Some factors may increase your chance of developing renal cell cancer. These include:

  • Smoking (risk decreases upon quitting)
  • Age (risk increases with age)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Obesity (being significantly overweight)
  • Long-term dialysis (treatment of chronic kidney failure)
  • Family history of kidney cancer
  • Specific inherited syndromes, e.g., hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma, familial renal cancer, von Hippel-Lindau disease, Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome or tuberous sclerosis complex
  • Contact with certain substances such as cadmium or particular herbicides

Stages of Renal Cell Cancer

Testing in the abdomen and kidneys is used to detect, locate, and diagnose renal cell cancer.

The “staging” of renal cell cancer describes it in terms of location, size, and how far it has spread. The different stages of cancer are considered to be the most reliable indicators to chart treatment course and survival chances; the earlier the stage of the disease, the more improved are the chances of successful management.

Research has shown that renal cell cancer, unlike some other types of cancers, spreads quickly. Although curable in its initial stage, it is difficult to diagnose and usually goes unobserved in early medical examinations. Although stages approximate survival rates, each person’s case is unique.

The stages of kidney cancer are:

Stage I: The tumor is small and still contained in the kidney.
Stage II: The tumor is larger than seven centimeters (approximately 2.7 inches) across and growing.
Stage III: The tumor has expanded into a major vein, but has not reached the lymph nodes.
Stage IV: The tumor has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs.

Renal Cell Cancer Treatment


Surgery removing the tumor while preserving kidney function is the preferred treatment for the majority of renal cell cancers.

Surgical procedures, depending upon your type of cancer, its stage, and your general health, include:

  • Removal of entire affected kidney (nephrectomy)
  • Removal of tumor from the kidney (partial nephrectomy)

Non-surgical treatment

Alternative options are available for patients who meet certain medical criteria, are unable to undergo surgery and whose tumors are small. These options include:

  • Freezing of cancer cells (cryoablation)
  • Heating of cancer cells (radiofrequency ablation)

Treatment alternatives for advanced and recurrent renal cell cancer

If the renal cell cancer returns and spreads to other parts of the body, through incurable, it is controllable with treatment, including:

  • Biological therapy (immunotherapy), works with your immune system to fight cancer, e.g., interferon and aldesleukin (Proleukin), and Nivolumab (Opdivo)
  • High-powered energy beams (radiation therapy)
  • Clinical trials (depending on your specific case)
  • Multiple therapies, if indicated.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with renal cell cancer, discuss your options and details of each with your physician. Before, during and after treatment, take care of your physical and emotional well-being. Don’t be afraid to ask for support, seeking counseling if needed.


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