What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is cancer that starts in the kidneys. It is sometimes called renal cancer. The kidneys are part of the urinary system. The kidneys filter the blood to remove excess water and waste products. These are then made into urine (pee).

Each year over 12500 people in the UK are diagnosed with kidney cancer. Kidney cancer usually only affects one kidney. It is very uncommon for cancer to be in both kidneys.

There are different types of kidney cancer. About 8 out of 10 (80%) kidney cancers are renal cell cancers (RCC). They may also be called renal cell carcinomas. They start in the cortex of the kidney. Kidney cancer can also start in the ureter and renal pelvis but this is rare.

This information is about renal cell cancers. We have separate information about ureter and renal pelvis cancer.

Sometimes kidney cancer can spread to lymph nodes close to the kidney. Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system helps protect us from infection and disease.

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Types of kidney cancer

There are different types of kidney cancer. About 8 out of 10 kidney cancers (80%) are renal cell cancers (RCC). They start in the cortex of the kidney.

There are different types of RCC. The most common type is clear cell renal cancer.

Less common types are:

  • papillary renal cell cancer
  • chromophobe renal cell cancer.

Kidney cancer can also start in the renal pelvis. This is usually a type of cancer called urothelial cancer or transitional cell carcinoma. We have separate information about the treatment of cancer in the renal pelvis.

Another rare type of kidney cancer is called collecting duct cancer (CDC). This cancer has features of both RCC and of urothelial cancer.

There are different types of RCC. The most common type is clear cell renal cancer.

Symptoms of kidney cancer

Kidney cancers do not always cause symptoms. Blood in the urine is the most common symptom. If you are worried about kidney cancer, we have more information about the signs and symptoms.

Causes of kidney cancer

There are certain things that can increase the risk of developing kidney cancer. These are called risk factors. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, you may still develop it.

Diagnosis of kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is often diagnosed when a person is having a scan for another reason. Sometimes people notice symptoms like blood in their urine.

If you have symptoms, you usually start by seeing your GP. They will examine you and arrange for you to have some tests. They may test your urine (pee). They may also do blood tests.

If your GP is not sure what the problem is or they think your symptoms could be caused by kidney cancer, they will usually refer you to the hospital to see a specialist doctor. This doctor is called a urologist. They specialise in treating urinary, bladder and kidney problems.

If you have blood in your urine, called haematuria, you may be referred to a specialist clinic. This is called a haematuria clinic. Often these clinics can do tests on the same day.

If tests or symptoms suggest you could have a kidney cancer, you should be seen by a specialist within 2 weeks.

At the hospital

The urologist or specialist nurse will ask you about your symptoms and your general health. They will also examine you and arrange some of the following tests:

  • Blood tests

    Blood tests help you check how well your kidneys and liver are working.

  • Ultrasound scan

    An ultrasound scan uses sound-waves to build up a picture of the kidneys, ureters and bladder. It can look for changes to the shape of the kidneys. It can help to show whether a lump is a cyst (fluid filled) or a tumour.

  • CT urogram

    A CT urogram is a type of CT scan. It looks at the kidneys, ureters and bladder.

  • Guided biopsy

    A guided biopsy uses CT or ultrasound to guide the doctor to the exact area of kidney that they want to take a sample of tissue from. The doctor injects some local anaesthetic to numb the area over the kidney. They then guide the needle through the skin to the kidney to take the tissue sample. This is sent to a laboratory to be checked for cancer cells. You may need to stay in hospital for a few hours or overnight.

Further tests after diagnosis

If the tests show you have kidney cancer, your doctor may want to do some further tests. These tests will help them find out the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging and will help you and your doctor decide on the best treatment for you. These may include some of the following tests:

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body.

  • MRI scan

    Some people have an MRI scan instead of, or as well as, as CT scan. It uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • Chest x-ray

    If you do not have a CT scan of the chest, you will have a chest x-ray to check the health of your lungs.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. We have more information that can help.

Staging and grading of kidney cancer

Your cancer doctor needs to know the stage and grade of the cancer to advise you on the best treatment for you.

Treatment for kidney cancer

Treatment depends on a number of factors, including the position, type, stage and grade of the cancer. Your doctors will also consider how well your kidneys work, your general health and your personal preferences.

  • Surgery

    Surgery is the main treatment for kidney cancer. The operation you have will depend on the stage of the cancer and your general health. You may have surgery to remove part of your kidney or the whole kidney.You may also have some surrounding tissue and lymph nodes removed. Rarely, surgery may be used to remove cancer that has spread to another part of the body.

  • Tumour ablation

    Tumour ablation may be used instead of surgery to treat small kidney cancers. It destroys the cancer cells with very high or low temperatures.

  • Arterial embolisation

    Arterial embolisation may be offered if surgery is not possible for you. It can shrink the tumour and help control symptoms by blocking its blood supply.

  • Monitoring

    Doctors may suggest monitoring small, low-grade cancers. They may also monitor the cancer if it is advanced and growing slowly. It is a way of delaying treatment until it is needed.

  • Targeted therapies

    Targeted therapy drugs may be used to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery. They are the main treatment for advanced kidney cancer.

  • Immunotherapies

    Immunotherapies may be used to reduce the risk of cancer coming back after surgery. They are occasionally used to treat some types of advanced kidney cancer.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy is occasionally used to relieve symptoms caused by advanced kidney cancer.

Your doctor will explain the different treatment options and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.

You may also be asked to take part in a clinical trial.

After kidney cancer treatment


After your treatment has finished, you will have regular check-ups with your cancer doctor, urologist or nurse. They will tell you how often and for how long you will need to have these. It will depend on the type of treatment you had and the risk of the cancer coming back.

Some people will have regular tests to check for any signs of the cancer coming back. If cancer comes back in the kidney but nowhere else, it may be possible to have further surgery to remove it.

You can talk to your cancer doctor or specialist nurse about any problems or worries you have at these check-ups. But if you notice any new symptoms or have any problems between appointments, contact your doctor or nurse for advice.

You may get anxious between appointments. You may worry about the cancer coming back. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Some other organisations, such as Kidney Cancer UK, also offer support to people affected by kidney cancer.

Well-being and recovery

We have more information about what you can do to protect your kidneys after treatment.

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Reviewed: 30 June 2018
Reviewed: 30/06/2018
Next review: 01 February 2021
Next review: 01/02/2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.