Kidney Cancer Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prognosis

Kidney cancer, sometimes referred to as renal cancer, is a disease that attacks the kidney cells. These cancerous cells form a tumor that can spread to other organs if it isn’t caught early enough for treatment to be successful. Like most cancers, recognizing the symptoms of kidney cancer in men or women early, can improve your chances of successful treatment.

Early treatment is important because the kidneys perform an essential function for the body. They work to make urine, clean your blood and removing waste products from your body. As a cleansing system for your body, healthy working kidneys are vital.

Kidney Cancer Symptoms

During the early stages of kidney cancer it is unlikely that you will experience any symptoms but they do begin to occur as the cancer progresses. During the later stages you may experience some common kidney cancer symptoms such as bloody urine, fever, quick weight loss and an overall sense of sickness.

Although many cancers present with a sense of fatigue, when combined with extreme pain in your side below the ribs and a mass in your stomach, it could very likely be kidney cancer. For some men suffering from kidney cancer, they may experience a swelling of veins in the testicles.

Causes And Risk Factors

Unlike many other forms of cancers, medical experts still don’t know for sure the causes of kidney cancer. However there are certain kidney cancer risk factors for certain populations that make them more susceptible to this disease.

Some risk factors for kidney cancer include:

  • Age. Most kidney cancer diagnosis occur in patients over the age of 40.
  • Obesity can increase or decrease the secretion of some hormones that increase your risk of getting cancer.
  • Smokers are at an increased risk because of the carcinogens found in tobacco products, which your kidneys help filter out of your body.
  • Family history of kidney cancer is a fair indicator that you may be at risk for kidney cancer, particularly among siblings.
  • High blood pressure or medications used to treat high blood pressure increase your risk, however the exact cause is unknown.
  • Men are far more likely (nearly twice as likely) than women to get kidney cancer.
  • Race is another factor although the reason is unknown. Black people have a greater risk of kidney cancer than whites.
  • Kidney disease and treatments for kidney disease like dialysis put you at an increased risk for kidney cancer.

How Do I Know If I Have Kidney Cancer?

The only way to be absolutely certain that you have kidney cancer is to undergo tests conducted by your physician. However if you fall into one of the high risk categories for kidney cancer and you have been experiencing some of the more common symptoms of kidney cancer, you should get tested immediately.

Particularly if you have been feeling unwell for a long period of time and experience unexplained weight loss, bloody urine, night sweats and stomach pain you may have kidney cancer and you want to confirm it and get treatment right away.


If you present with symptoms that suggest you may be suffering from kidney cancer you will likely undergo one or more of several specific procedures beginning with an exam. Although a physical exam is not an exact kidney cancer test, it will help your doctor determine your kidney cancer diagnosis. The exam will include an abdominal exam to check for tumors as well as fever and blood pressure documentation.

Since part of the job of the kidney is to produce urine and clean blood your diagnosis will also include a urine and blood test. The urine can show signs of kidney cancer or any other disease while a blood test will let the doctor—and you—know how well your kidneys are performing.

You may also have to undergo kidney cancer tests using the latest technology including ultrasounds and CAT scans. These tests are used to identify tumors or cysts that indicate signs of cancer.

One of the more invasive methods of kidney cancer diagnosis is a biopsy and usually this is done when the symptoms aren’t clearly kidney cancer but the patient is at risk for the disease. During a biopsy the physician will insert a needle to one or both kidneys in order remove tissue and test for cancer.

When your doctor has confirmed that you have kidney cancer, several of these diagnostic techniques will help determine your kidney cancer stage and prognosis.

Kidney Cancers Stages

In order to make sure you’re getting the best kidney cancer treatment possible, your doctor must determine the stage of your cancer. Stages of kidney cancer are based on several factors that indicates how progressed the cancer is. The stages are based on:

  • Whether or not the cancer has spread to other organs.
  • The size (and sometimes shape) of the tumor.
  • If the cancer has spread, where.

Scans, MRIs and ultra sounds are used to help determine the stage of the cancer.

Stage I: This is the earliest stage of kidney cancer where the tumors are quite small—up to 2 ¾ inches—and are still confined only to the kidneys.  

Stage II: During stage 2 of kidney cancer the cancer is still found only one or both kidneys. However the difference between this stage and stage 1 is that the tumor is usually larger than 2 ¾ inches.

Stage III: This is advanced kidney cancer and you are in stage 3 if:

  • The cancer cells have spread to at least one adjacent lymph node but it still located only in the kidney.
  • A tumor is found in the main blood vessel in the kidney and a nearby lymph node.
  • Tumors located in the fatty tissue surrounding the kidney and close by lymph nodes.
  • Cancer cells have spread into blood vessels and possibly in lymph nodes near the kidney.

Stage IV: In this stage the cancer has spread beyond the kidney’s fatty tissue layer and possibly to other nearby lymph nodes. The cancer may have already spread to other organs in this stage including: lungs, pancreas or bowels.

Preparing For Treatment

In order to be active in your kidney cancer treatment you will want to prepare yourself for a long treatment regardless of your stage. But in order to be as active as possible when fighting this disease you should ask questions when you have them and follow all treatment suggestions given to you by your specialist.

One of the first things you should do is make a list of all medications—even over the counter—you currently take, including your treatment schedule. This will help the doctor determine if new medications are needed and it will help him decide what other forms of treatment are possible.

You should also come armed with questions you have. From the time you receive your diagnosis you should write down every question you have and leave room to document the answers. Some information you should ask about includes:

  • Treatment choices and recovery times
  • Benefits and drawbacks of different treatment options
  • How long will you be required to stay in a hospital, if necessary.
  • What treatments are covered by insurance
  • What life changes like diet and exercise will have to be made before and after treatment?


Once you have received your diagnosis you will likely be referred to a specialist who can implement your kidney cancer treatment plan. The treatment will be a combined effort to treat pain, symptoms, side effects as well as the mental and emotional stress common among cancer patients.

Surgery: This is the most common treatment for kidney cancer because it allows for the tumor or cancerous cells to be removed. Your doctor will refer to the surgery as a “nephrectomy” but there are several types in which all, parts or just some of the kidney and infected areas are removed.

Arterial embolization: To make a kidney cancer surgery easier, your doctor may recommend an arterial embolization in which the tumor is reduced. Shrinking the tumor is the main goal of this treatment, however it can also be used as a way to relieve certain symptoms of kidney cancer.

Radiation Therapy: Also known as radiotherapy, this treatment plan relies on radiation rays to kill only the cancerous cells. This treatment may take several weeks to complete, however it may also be used to shrink the cells prior to surgery. Patients beyond the stage where therapy would be effective may be given radiotherapy to alleviate pain and treat other symptoms of kidney cancer.

Biological therapy: This kidney cancer treatment plan delivers treatment via the blood stream. It relies on your immune system to help fight cancer using substances your body already creates in small amounts, but in larger amounts in the form of cancer fighting medicines.

Chemotherapy: Chemo is a common cancer treatment that sends anti-cancer drugs via the blood stream. Although because chemotherapy travels throughout the body, it is rarely used for kidney cancer because its effectiveness has been shown to be limited. With new meds hitting the market regularly you should ask your specialist if chemotherapy is effective for treating kidney cancer.

Side effects Of Treatment

Although you may experience different side effects of your kidney cancer treatment depending on the type of treatment you receive there are many overlapping common among kidney cancer patients.

Some side effects you may experience include:

  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Back pain (common with arterial embolization)
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Weakened immunity


You will often hear kidney cancer patients speak of their “prognosis” which simply means the doctor’s opinion about the likely outcome of the disease and treatment plan. Many different factors determine your prognosis as well as the actual outcome including the stage of the cancer, how you respond to treatment, your age and overall health status and even statistics on patients similar to you.

A prognosis is a best guess of the medial professional, not a guarantee or promise of an outcome.

How Can I Prevent Kidney Cancer?

Since there is no direct causes of kidney cancer there are no clear cut methods to prevent it. However according to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 85% of cancers can be prevented by making significant diet and lifestyle changes. But if you fall into one of the high risk categories for kidney cancer there are things you can to do prevent kidney cancer, they include:

  • Regular exercise and a healthy & nutritious diet can help reduce your weight, eliminating your obesity as a risk factor.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables to your diet.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Reduce sodium and alcohol intake to maintain healthy blood pressure.
  • Avoid exposure to harmful chemicals
  • Make regular visits to your doctor for checkups and blood tests.

A healthy diet and an active lifestyle can help greatly reduce your risk of kidney cancer so take these small steps so you don’t have to worry about bigger steps like surgery or chemotherapy.

Written By Charles Howard

Charles Stanton Howard, MD, is a specialist in Molecular Pathology from the USA. Dr Howard’s educational background includes a BA with the Highest Distinction from the University of Texas, one of the most highly regarded cancer institutes in the world, as well as an MD gained at the University of Virginia.


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