Kidney Cancer

About 50,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with kidney cancer every year. The kidneys are a pair of kidney bean-shaped organs, located above the waist on either side of the spine, that filter and clean blood and produce urine.

The most common adult kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma, which forms in the lining of small tubes in the kidney. Children usually develop a different form of kidney cancer called Wilms' tumor.

In its early stages, kidney cancer usually causes no obvious signs or troublesome symptoms. As a kidney tumor grows, symptoms may occur. These may include:

  • Blood in the urine. In some cases, blood is visible. In other instances, traces of blood are detected in a urinalysis, a lab test often performed as part of a regular medical checkup.
  • A lump or mass in the kidney area.

Other less common symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Recurrent fevers
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To find the cause of symptoms, your doctor may ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. In addition to checking for general signs of health, your doctor may perform blood and urine tests. Your doctor also may carefully feel the abdomen for lumps or irregular masses.

Other tests that produce pictures of the kidneys and nearby organs are often recommended. These pictures can often show changes in the kidney and surrounding tissue. For example, an intravenous pyelogram (IVP) is a series of X-rays of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder after the injection of a dye into the veins. The pictures produced can show changes in the shape of these organs.

Another test, arteriography, is a series of X-rays of the blood vessels. Dye is injected into a large blood vessel through a catheter. X-rays show the dye as it moves through the network of smaller blood vessels in and around the kidney.

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Treatment for kidney cancer depends on the stage of the disease, the patient's general health and age, and other factors. Our doctors develop a treatment plan to fit each patient's needs.

At UCSF Medical Center, patients with kidney cancer often are treated by a team of specialists, including urologists, oncologists and radiation oncologists. Kidney cancer usually is treated with surgery or biological therapy, also called immunotherapy. Doctors may decide to use one treatment method or a combination of methods.


Surgery is the most common treatment for kidney cancer. An operation to remove the kidney is called a nephrectomy. Most often, the surgeon removes the whole kidney along with the adrenal gland and the tissue around the kidney. Some lymph nodes in the area also may be removed. This procedure is called a radical nephrectomy. Very often, the surgeon is able to remove just the part of the kidney that contains the tumor. This procedure, called a partial nephrectomy, is best suited for patients with small tumors or tumors on the edge of the kidney.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.