Kidney Cancer | Cancer


Kidney Cancer

Our team of kidney cancer specialists provide care for all types and stages of kidney cancer. We use the latest treatment advancements, including surgery, medications and radiologic techniques.

Medically reviewed by Rebecca Brooks, M.D. on June 20, 2023.

Two doctors reviewing documents on a yellow clipboard in front of a diagnostic imaging machine

Care for All Types of Kidney Cancer

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center provides the latest care for all types and stages of kidney cancer. We offer minimally invasive surgeries, as well as other therapies, to treat cancer while protecting your kidney health.


What Is Kidney Cancer?

Your kidneys filter and remove waste and excess fluids from your blood, which leave your body when you urinate. Kidney cancer occurs when diseased cells form a tumor in one or both of your kidneys. These cancerous cells multiply and grow out of control.

Kidney cancer is one of the top 10 most common cancers affecting adults. You may also hear the term renal cancer, since renal is the medical term for your kidneys.

Around 9 in 10 kidney cancers are a type called renal cell carcinoma (RCC). This cancer forms in tiny kidney tubes called tubules that filter your blood. The most common RCC subtype — clear cell RCC — is made up of cells that look very pale or clear under a microscope.

Other types of kidney cancer include:

  • Chromophobe RCC: Cancer cells look like clear cell RCC, but they’re larger.
  • Papillary RCC: Tiny finger-like projections called papillae form in the tumor.
  • Renal sarcoma: These rare tumors form in the blood vessels or connective tissue of the kidney.
  • Transitional cell (urothelial) carcinoma: Cancer forms in urothelial cells that line the center of the kidney (renal pelvis) where urine collects.
  • Wilms tumor (nephroblastoma): This kidney cancer is mostly a pediatric kidney cancer. It’s extremely rare in adults.

Kidney Cancer Symptoms

Kidney cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms, especially when the cancer tumor is small.

Common Symptoms

When they are present, signs and symptoms of kidney cancer include:

  • Blood in your urine
  • Extreme, unexplained fatigue
  • Loss of appetite and unplanned weight loss
  • Lower back pain or lump
  • Persistent fever
  • Swollen ankles, feet and legs

Kidney Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Medical experts don’t always know why kidney cells become cancerous. Sometimes it’s because a change in your genes (mutation) makes you more prone to kidney cancer.

About 8% of kidney cancers are inherited. Cancer-causing gene changes can also occur naturally or from environmental factors, such as smoking.

There are some risk factors that make you more at risk for kidney cancer, including:

Family History

Having a family member, especially a sibling, with renal cell carcinoma (RCC) increases your risk of developing the same cancer. Some conditions, such as Von-Hippel Lindau (VHL) syndrome, run in families and increase kidney cancer risk.

Excess Weight

People who have obesity or excess weight are at greater risk of RCC. Excess weight may cause hormonal changes that lead to RCC.

Biological Sex and Race

Men are up to three times more likely to develop RCC. Kidney cancer is also more common in Black, American Indian and Alaskan Native people.

High Blood Pressure

People with high blood pressure are more prone to kidney cancer even when they take medications to control the condition.

Kidney Disease and Dialysis

People who have chronic kidney disease (CKD) or who need dialysis for kidney failure are more prone to kidney cancer.


Smoking tobacco products doubles your risk of kidney cancer. It may play a role in as many as 1 in 3 kidney cancer diagnoses.

Workplace Exposures to Chemicals

Exposure to cadmium, as well as batteries, certain paints and welding materials, can increase your kidney cancer risk.


Diagnosing Kidney Cancer

Physicians rely on physical exams, your medical history and a variety of tests to diagnose kidney cancer.

Diagnostic tests for kidney cancer include:

  • Blood tests: A blood test can show if there’s a problem with your kidneys. It can also detect anemia (low red blood cell levels) caused by kidney cancer.
  • Urine tests: A urinalysis detects blood and protein in urine, which may indicate kidney cancer.
  • Imaging tests: A CT scan, MRI or ultrasound can detect kidney tumors.
  • Kidney biopsy: A physician removes a small sample of tissue from your tumor and checks it for cancer cells. Physicians tend to use imaging scans more than biopsies to diagnose kidney cancer.

Cancer experts at our Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Department of Radiology examine the test results to determine whether you may have kidney cancer and the subtype.

Kidney Cancer Treatments

Treatments for kidney cancer vary depending on the cancer stage, type and other factors, such as your age and overall health.

Kidney cancer surgery (nephrectomy) is an important treatment. If the cancer hasn’t spread outside of the kidney (metastatic kidney cancer), surgery (removing part or the whole kidney) often cures the disease.

Physicians sometimes use nonsurgical treatments for small kidney tumors that only affect the kidney. You may also get nonsurgical treatment if you don’t want surgery or can’t get it due to health reasons.

Drug therapies treat metastatic (stage 4) kidney cancer that spreads outside the kidney. Medications can also help if you don’t want, or can’t get, surgery. Some people take medications after surgery to lower the risk of kidney cancer coming back. This is known as adjuvant therapy.

Kidney cancer specialists at our cancer center work together to customize a treatment plan for your unique condition. We provide the latest cancer treatments and services, including:

Partial Nephrectomy

Surgeons remove the kidney section with the tumor. The rest of the kidney continues to work normally. This surgery is an option when a tumor is small.

Radical Nephrectomy

For larger tumors, surgeons may remove the entire kidney, the adrenal gland that sits on top of the kidney and nearby lymph nodes and fatty tissue. Your remaining kidney does the work of both kidneys. Learn more about surgery for kidney cancer.


In this nonsurgical treatment, a physician inserts an ablation probe into your body near the tumor. The probe uses extremely cold temperatures to freeze and destroy cancer cells. This procedure is also called cryotherapy or cryosurgery.

Radiofrequency Ablation

A physician inserts an ablation probe directly through your skin or a small incision to reach the tumor. This treatment uses a safe electrical current to heat and destroy cancer cells.


These IV drugs help your body’s immune system find, target and destroy cancer cells. They include immune checkpoint inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies. Discover the latest immunotherapy.

Targeted Drug Therapy

Some targeted drugs block the growth of blood vessels that feed kidney cancer. Others target proteins in cancer cells that help them grow and thrive.

Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy

Physicians rarely use chemotherapy to treat kidney cancer. However, radiation therapy may be effective if the cancer spreads.


Kidney Cancer Prevention

Because kidney cancer usually develops for no known reason, there often isn’t a way to prevent it. Still, you can take these steps to lower your risk:

  • Avoid exposure to harmful chemicals.
  • Maintain a healthy weight or lose excess weight if necessary.
  • Manage high blood pressure.
  • Seek help to quit smoking through our Stop Tobacco Program (SToP). 

"Key Statistics About Kidney Cancer," American Cancer Society, 

"What Is Kidney Cancer?" American Cancer Society, 

"Hereditary Kidney Cancer Syndromes (PDQ®)–Patient Version," NIH National Cancer Institute, 

"Kidney Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention," American Society of Clinical Oncology, 

"Risk Factors for Kidney Cancer," American Cancer Society,

How many people are diagnosed with kidney cancer?

81KNew diagnoses each year in the U.S.

Annual deaths

15KAmericans die each year from kidney cancer

Source: American Cancer Society: Key Statistics About Kidney Cancer

Request an Appointment

Our cancer specialists provide thorough evaluations and personalized treatment plans. Learn more about how to make an appointment at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.



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