Renal Cell Carcinoma

What Is Renal Cell Carcinoma?

It's the most common type of kidney cancer. Although it’s a serious disease, finding and treating it early makes it more likely that you’ll be cured. No matter when you’re diagnosed, you can do certain things to ease your symptoms and feel better during your treatment.

Most people who have renal cell carcinoma are older, usually between ages 50 and 70. It often starts as just one tumor in a kidney, but sometimes it begins as several tumors, or it’s found in both kidneys at once. You might also hear it called renal cell cancer.

Doctors have different ways to treat renal cell carcinoma, and scientists are testing new ones, too. You’ll want to learn as much about your disease as you can and work with your doctor so you can choose the best treatment.


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Scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes renal cell carcinoma. They know that most kidney cancers start when something goes wrong in the genes in the kidney. No one can say for certain why that happens.

Several things can raise your chances of getting the disease, like:

  • Smoking
  • Being very overweight
  • Taking a lot of pain medicine, like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, for a long time
  • Having hepatitis C
  • Exposure to certain dyes, asbestos, cadmium (a metal), herbicides, and solvents
  • Having acquired cystic kidney disease (especially in dialysis patients)
  • Some inherited conditions, especially von Hippel-Lindau disease


Early on, renal cell carcinoma doesn’t usually cause any symptoms. As the disease gets more serious, you might have warning signs like:

  • A lump on your side, belly, or lower back
  • Blood in your pee
  • Low back pain on one side
  • Losing weight for no clear reason
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Fever
  • Feeling tired
  • Not enough red blood cells (anemia)
  • Night sweats
  • High levels of calcium in your blood
  • High blood pressure

Getting a Diagnosis

Your doctor will want to find out more about your symptoms to figure out what’s going on. First, they’ll give you a physical exam and ask you questions like:

  • When did you first notice a problem?
  • Is there blood in your urine?
  • Have you been having any pain? Where?
  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Has anyone in your family had von Hippel-Lindau disease? What about kidney cancer?


There are a few different ways doctors can treat renal cell carcinoma. You may need to try several before finding one that works. The best plan for you depends on the stage of your cancer, how healthy you are overall, and any side effects you might have. Your options may include:

  • Surgery to remove part or all of the kidney
  • Biologic drugs, which boost your body’s own defenses to fight cancer cells
  • Drugs such as interferon-alfa or interleukin-2
  • Targeted therapy -- treatments that attack specific things cancers need to survive, like a tumor’s blood vessels or certain proteins; these include axitinib (Inlyta), bevacizumab (Avastin), cabozantinib (Cometriq), everolimus (Afinitor), lenvatinib (Lenvima), nivolumab (Opdivo), pazopanib (Votrient), sorafenib (Nexavar), sunitinib (Sutent), and temsirolimus (Torisel).
  • Ablation. This uses extreme cold or radio waves to destroy tumors.

Taking Care of Yourself

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You can do things during and after your treatment to feel stronger physically and emotionally.

  • Eat well. You need calories and nutrients to stay strong for treatment. If it’s hard for you to eat, try smaller meals every few hours instead of three big meals.
  • Keep moving.Exercise is good for your body and your mind. Your treatment may leave you feeling tired, so be sure to balance activity with rest.
  • Follow your treatment plan. Keep your doctor in the loop about any changes in how you’re feeling.
  • Get support. It’s important to take care of your emotional health, too. Trained counselors and support groups can offer safe places to talk about how you and your loved ones feel. Also, ask for help from family, friends, and members of your community.

What to Expect

Your outlook depends on the stage of your disease. The earlier you find and treat renal cell carcinoma, the better your progress will be. Treatment helps many people fight the cancer, and you have several good options to ease pain and other symptoms.

Getting Support

To get more information on renal cell carcinoma, visit the web site of the American Cancer Society.

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