Kidney Cancer

What is kidney cancer?

Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells. Kidney cancer, also referred to as renal cancer, is when a cancer develops in your kidneys, the bean-shaped organs, which make urine in our bodies. A person usually has two kidneys and a cancer can occur in either one. As with other cancers, different parts of the kidney give rise to different forms of cancer. The commonest tumour in the kidney is called clear cell cancer, which arises from the cells that help make urine.


Like most cancers, the exact cause is unknown though cancers can arise from random changes in our genes. Under a microscope we can see that cancers arising from different types of cells look different and we know that they are caused by problems in different gene. Smoking and being overweight increase the risk of getting kidney cancer, as well as some rare medical conditions such as Von Hippel Lindau disease. Patients with kidney failure on dialysis are also at slightly higher risk of getting kidney cancer.


There are no real symptoms specifically for kidney cancer – kidney tumours are usually found by accident, often after an ultrasound scan. Sometimes they are found after blood is seen in the urine.


There are many different ways to treat kidney cancer, almost all involve surgery of some kind. Depending on the tumour size and location, you may require surgery to remove the whole kidney (total nephrectomy) or just the affected part (partial nephrectomy). Ideally, only the affected tissue is removed rather than the whole kidney as this is better for you in the long term. If you do have to have one of your kidneys removed, you will still be able to live normally with only one kidney.

Small cancers can also be ‘frozen’ (cryotherapy) or ‘cooked’ (microwave therapy). These are useful techniques for patients who are frail, elderly or have poor kidney function. However, there can be more risk of the cancer coming back with these techniques so surgery is the preferred option if you are fit and well enough.

Chemotherapy is only used if your cancer has spread to other areas of the body (metastasised) and is causing problems as these drugs (taken as tablets) cause the cancer to shrink but do not kill all the cancer cells. If the spread of your cancer is not causing problems, you may not be given drugs.