About Your Kidneys

Your kidneys are a pair of organs each about the size of a fist. As part of the urinary tract, their main job is to make urine by removing waste and extra water from your blood before sending this liquid into your bladder.

Your kidneys also help control blood pressure by making a hormone called renin. They also help make sure the body has enough red blood cells by making a hormone called erythropoietin.

An artistic rendering of the kidneys

Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer is also called renal cancer. It is one of the ten most common cancers in both men and women. In 2019, about 73,820 new cases of kidney cancer will occur.

Kidney cancer cells can spread through the lymph nodes and blood vessels to the lungs, bones or liver. When this happens, the cancer has metastasized and new tumors may form in those parts of the body.

These are the two most common types of kidney cancers:

Renal cell carcinoma:

About 9 out of 10 kidney cancers are renal cell carcinomas. About 54,000 Americans are diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma each year. Most are over 55 years old.

Transitional cell carcinoma:

About 5 to 10 of every 100 cancers in the kidney are transitional cell carcinomas. These carcinomas don’t start in the kidney itself but in the lining of the renal pelvis.


Kidney Cancer Staging

If you are diagnosed with kidney cancer, your doctor will determine the stage of the disease. Staging is a way of classifying cancer by how much of the disease is in your body and whether it has spread. This helps doctors plan the best way to treat the cancer.

Your doctor may order one or more tests:

Blood tests:

Some people with kidney cancer have high levels of calcium or LDH in their blood.

Chest X-ray:

A chest X-ray can show if kidney cancer has spread to your lungs.

CT scan:

This scan can show cancer in your lymph nodes, lungs or elsewhere.


An MRI can show cancer in your blood vessels, lymph nodes or other tissue in the abdomen.

These are the stages of kidney cancer:

Stage 1:

The tumor is no bigger than a tennis ball and cancer cells are found only in the kidney.

Stage 2:

The tumor is bigger than a tennis ball, but cancer cells are found only in the kidney.

Stage 3:

The tumor can be any size. It has spread to at least one nearby lymph node, or to nearby blood vessels.

Stage 4:

The tumor has grown through the outer layer of the kidney, or cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes, the lungs, liver, bones or other tissue.


Frequently Ask Questions About Kidney Cancer

What are Kidney Cancer Symptoms?

What Is The Difference Between A Kidney Tumor And Kidney Cysts?

Are There Any New Advances On the Horizon For Kidney Cancer?

What Is The Difference Between A Kidney Tumor And Kidney Cysts?

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Cancer

Common symptoms of kidney cancer include:

  • Blood in your urine, which may look rusty in color
  • Pain in your side that doesn’t go away
  • A lump or mass in your side or abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Feeling very tired
Risk Factors

Kidney Cancer Risk Factors

Doctors can’t explain why kidney cancer occurs, but they have identified several risk factors for this type of cancer:

Smoking: People who smoke have a higher risk of getting kidney cancer. The longer you smoke, the greater the risk.

Obesity: Being obese increases the risk of kidney cancer.

High blood pressure: Having high blood pressure may increase the risk of kidney cancer.

Family history of kidney cancer: People with a family member who had kidney cancer have a slightly increased risk. Certain diseases that run in families also increase the risk of kidney cancer. One is Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, known as VHL. People with changes in the VHL gene face a greater risk.


How Kidney Cancer is Diagnosed

Our urologists diagnose and treat kidney cancer with the most advanced therapies available. We provide focused, personalized care with a team of specialists that will help you make informed decisions.

In order to reach a diagnosis for kidney cancer, we take a thorough medical history and conduct a physical examination to be as accurate as possible. We’ll ask questions, make note of any symptoms you may have experienced and include any other pertinent information.

The following tests may be used to diagnose kidney cancer or to find out if it has spread:

Urine tests:

A lab checks your urine for blood, cancer cells and other signs of disease.

Blood tests:

A lab checks your blood for several substances, including creatinine. A high level of creatinine may mean the kidneys aren’t doing their job.


An ultrasound creates a picture of your kidney and nearby tissue and can show a kidney tumor.

CT scan:

An X-ray machine linked to a computer can show cancer in the kidneys, lymph nodes or other tissue in the abdomen.


A machine with a magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures that can show cancer in your kidneys, lymph nodes or other tissue in the abdomen.


An injection of dye collects in your kidneys and an X-ray is taken to detect a tumor or other problems.


Your doctor inserts a thin needle to remove a sample of tissue from the kidney. The tissue is examined for cancer cells.


Kidney Cancer Treatment

Introducing Ceevra: Advanced Visualization for Kidney Cancer through Mobile 3D Imaging

Ceevra converts a patient’s standard black-and-white CT scan or MRI into a brilliant, interactive, multi-color 3D digital image that provides surgeons with finer detail and a true 3D visualization to help guide decisions on the type of surgery (e.g., radical or partial nephrectomy) and surgical approach (e.g., transperitoneal or retroperitoneal) that is best for each patient. For an even more immersive experience, the 3D models can be viewed in virtual reality using compatible VR headsets. We are pleased to be the first medical center in California to incorporate this groundbreaking technology into our standard practice for patients undergoing a partial or radical nephrectomy.

Dr. Jennifer Linehan, urologist, and associate professor of urology and urologic oncology, uses Ceevra’s Advanced mobile 3D Imaging to view patients CT and MRI scans as a 3D model to not only plan and perform complex operations, but to also help patients better understand their condition and proposed course of treatment.

Watch Dr. Linehan’s video to learn more about this groundbreaking technology:

A Randomized Clinical Trial

Learn how in a single-blind randomized clinical trial involving 92 patients, the use of 3-dimensional virtual reality models reduced the operative time, estimated blood loss, clamp time, and length of hospital stay for kidney cancer patients by reading our publication.

Surgery is the most common treatment for people with kidney cancer.

If one kidney is removed, the remaining kidney will need to do the work of both. However, if your remaining kidney isn’t functioning well, you may need dialysis. Some people may need a kidney transplant.

You can rest assured knowing that we have experts in laparoscopic and robotic-assisted kidney cancer surgery should those procedures be required.

Types of Kidney Cancer Surgery

Removing the entire kidney:

This is called a radical nephrectomy. Your surgeon removes the entire kidney along with the adrenal gland. Lymph nodes in the area may also be removed.

Removing part of the kidney:

This is called a partial nephrectomy. Your surgeon removes only the part of the kidney that contains the tumor. This is done either by a large incision or by laparoscopic surgery.


The surgeon inserts a tool through a small incision or directly through the skin and the tool freezes and kills the kidney tumor.

Laparoscopic surgery

is a minimally invasive robotic-assisted surgery that involves using a robot inserted through a small incision to remove the tumor. We specialize in robotic kidney surgery using the da Vinci Surgical System. A urologic oncologist uses computerized imaging to direct the robot as it performs the procedure. This minimally invasive surgery means less blood loss and pain, and a faster recovery.

Other Kidney Cancer treatments Options

Radiofrequency ablation:

The surgeon inserts a probe through the skin or through a small incision and kills the kidney cancer cells with heat.

Radiation therapy:

This treatment is much like getting an X-ray, but the radiation is much stronger. Kidney cancers are not very sensitive to radiation. The treatment is used most often to ease symptoms of kidney cancer such as pain or bleeding caused by the cancer’s spread.

Targeted therapy:

People with kidney cancer that has spread may receive a type of drug called targeted therapy to shrink a kidney tumor or slow its growth. The drug usually is taken by mouth.


This treatment uses anti-cancer drugs that are given intravenously or by mouth to reach all areas of the body. However, kidney cancer generally is resistant to chemotherapy, so it is not a standard treatment.

Biological therapy:

People with kidney cancer that has spread may receive biological therapy. This treatment is meant to slow the growth of tumors or shrink them. The biological treatment is injected intravenously or under the skin.


At the Saint John’s Cancer Institute, we also prescribe TomoTherapy whenever possible. This advanced radiation treatment uses computer imaging to closely target the kidney cancer. As a result, a higher dose of radiation can be used with less damage to surrounding tissue.

Kidney Cancer Prevention

Recommendations to lower your risk of kidney cancer include:

Quit smoking cigarettes:

Smoking is responsible for a large percentage of cases of kidney cancer.

Maintain a healthy weight:

Obesity and high blood pressure are risk factors for kidney cancer.

Avoid exposure to harmful substances:

Cadmium and organic solvents found in the workplace may be a risk for kidney cancer.

When to See a Provider

Submit an online appointment request or call 310-582-7137  if you have signs and symptoms that worry you.