What Is Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Renal cell carcinoma from risk factors to prevention

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Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer, accounting for up to 90% of cases of the disease. In renal cell carcinoma, malignant cells are believed to arise from the tubules of the kidney.

The primary function of the kidney is to filter waste from our blood. About 50 gallons of blood enter our kidneys every day. They also process approximately two quarts of extra water. The wastes that are filtered, and the extra water, turn into urine.

The urine then travels down tubes, called ureters and is stored in the bladder until excretion (urination).

Causes and Risk Factors

We have yet to identify the causes of renal cell carcinoma, but researchers have identified several known risk factors for the disease. A risk factor is something that increases the likelihood that you may develop cancer.  Risk factors for kidney cancer include:

  • Being male
  • Being over 50
  • Being on dialysis
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease as well as some other genetic diseases and predispositions
  • Smoking (renal cell and lung cancer are only two of the many cancers caused by smoking)
  • Having a family history of kidney cancer or bladder cancer
  • Long-term use of over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and Tylenol (acetaminophen)


Unfortunately, renal cell carcinoma symptoms usually do not appear until the disease has progressed. In fact, it is usually detected "accidentally" when another symptom or condition is being investigated.

Symptoms of renal cell carcinoma (when present) include:


A palpable mass or the finding of a mass on an x-ray done for another reason are usually what leads a physician to suspect kidney cancer.

The first step in diagnosing renal cell carcinoma is through various imaging tests and blood tests. Ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, and intravenous pyelogram (IVP) are all imaging methods that may be used to help diagnose kidney cancer.

Ultimately, it is a kidney biopsy that will confirm the presence or absence of cancer and what type it is. A kidney biopsy can be done through a fine needle aspiration biopsy technique.

If cancer is found, more tests may need to be done to determine if the kidney cancer has spread to nearby tissues and organs. This is called staging.


Treatment of renal cell carcinoma most often includes a combination of therapies.

Surgery to remove all of part of the kidney is a common treatment for renal cell carcinoma. People with early stage renal cell carcinoma are the best candidates for surgery.

Tumor embolization is a method of treating this disease in which arteries that feed the cancer are blocked (embolized).

Radiation therapy may be used to treat kidney cancer but is not usually very effective compared to how it works with some other cancers.  Radiation treatment is most often used palliatively - to relieve discomfort caused by the cancer, but not with the intent to cure the cancer.

Chemotherapy is is not commonly used in treating renal cell carcinoma. It may be used along with immunotherapy or when immunotherapy is not effective.

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy is a treatment option for many types of kidney cancer.   Immunotherapy drugs work by stimulating the immune system to help fight cancer.  Currently, both checkpoint inhibitors and cytokines are being used for renal cell cancers.

Several targeted therapy drugs have been approved for use in some people with kidney cancer. These kind of drugs block and prevent the growth or spread of cancer cells. They do this by attacking the cells directly or preventing the growth of blood vessels that provide tumors nourishment to grow.

Some targeted therapy drugs used for renal cell cancers include:

  • Sutent (sunitinib)
  • Nexavar (sorafenib)
  • Votrient (pazopanib)
  • Inlyta (axitinib)

Clinical trials are in progress which are currently studying several new drugs for kidney cancer.  Talk with your doctor about this option.

Other Important Steps in Treatment

Not only is smoking a risk factor for renal cell carcinoma but continuing to smoke may make treatment less effective.  Check out these 10 reasons to quit smoking even after a diagnosis of cancer.


While there are no proven kidney cancer prevention methods, there are steps we can take to reduce our risk of kidney cancer.

Quit Smoking or Don't Start.  Smoking is a strong risk factor for renal cell carcinoma. As soon as you quit (it's never too late!), your body reaps the benefits of being tobacco free.

Know What You are Being Exposed to in the Workplace.  If you are exposed to fumes, dust, and chemicals in the workplace, you have a right to know what you are being exposed to. Gasoline, diesel exhaust, arsenic, beryllium, vinyl chloride, nickel chromates, coal products, mustard gas and chloromethyl ethers are all carcinogens and can be found in some work environments. Learn more about occupational causes of cancer and how to protect yourself.

Eat a Well-Balanced Diet.  Eating a well-balanced diet is advantageous for many reasons. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but low in animal fats and salt helps prevent obesity, a risk factor for renal cell carcinoma.


National Cancer Institute. Renal Cell Cancer Treatment – Health Professional Version (PDQ). Updated 02/04/16.