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People have two kidneys, one on each side of the back above the waist. Kidneys filter blood. The waste they collect is carried in the urine, which is produced by microscopic tubules inside the kidney. Urine flows from the kidneys through tubes called ureters and down into the bladder.
Kidney cancer arises from these microscopic tubules. Although the disease usually grows as a single tumor within the kidney, in rare cases a kidney may contain more than one tumor, or tumors may be found in both kidneys.
Surgery offers the highest chance for successful treatment when kidney cancer has not spread. Once the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs, bones or brain, the chance for a cure is much lower.
Kidney cancer types
Renal cell carcinoma (RCC): This is the most common type of kidney cancer. There are several sub-types of RCC based on the genetic changes in the cancer cells. These include clear cell, papillary, chromophobe and collecting duct carcinomas, among others. Clear cell carcinoma accounts for 80% of all RCC cases, and most treatments are focused on this type.
Wilms’ tumor: This is a childhood cancer, responsible for 95% of pediatric kidney cancer cases. Read more about Wilm’s tumor.
Urothelial cell cancer of the renal pelvis and ureter: Cancer of the urinary tract that occurs in the part of the kidney that collects urine or in the ureter is called urothelial carcinoma. Although it is frequently called kidney cancer, it is actually more like a bladder cancer, since most bladder cancers also form urothelial cells. Read more about urothelial cancer on our bladder cancer page.
A small number of kidney cancer cases can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Learn more about the risk to you and your family on our genetic testing page.
Kidney cancer causes and risk factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting kidney cancer is called a risk factor.
The known risk factors for kidney cancer include:
- Smoking: This is the biggest risk factor for kidney cancer. Chemicals in tobacco smoke are absorbed into the blood, and then pass through the kidneys and collect in the urine. These chemicals can damage the kidneys and increase the risk of developing kidney cancer.
- Age: Most cases occur after age 50
- Gender: Men are more than twice as likely to get kidney cancer as women
- High blood pressure
- Advanced kidney disease and long-term kidney dialysis
- Race: African-Americans have a slightly higher rate of papillary kidney cancer.
- Rare inherited conditions including von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma
- Family history of kidney cancer
Not everyone with risk factors gets kidney cancer. However, if you have risk factors, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your doctor.
Why choose MD Anderson for your kidney cancer care?
MD Anderson's method of delivering personalized care for kidney cancer can make a crucial difference in your outcome and recovery.
In the Genitourinary Cancer Center, you are the focus of a team of experts who specialize in kidney cancer and strive to provide the most advanced treatment with the least impact on your body. This team includes pathologists who specialize in diagnosing specific types and subtypes of kidney cancer; medical, radiation and surgical oncologists with deep expertise in treating the disease; along with specially trained support staff.
Working together, this team utilizes leading-edge technology and techniques from diagnosis through treatment. Your kidney cancer treatment options may include:
- Kidney-sparing surgery
- Laparoscopic and robotic surgery
- Targeted therapies and immunotherapies that are extending the lives of patients with metastatic kidney cancer
- Cryoablation, radiofrequency ablation and active surveillance for patients with small tumors.
- Innovative clinical trials of new cancer drugs and surgical procedures
At MD Anderson, you also benefit from one of the most active kidney cancer research programs in the United States. This means we are able to offer a wide range of clinical trials (research studies) for new treatments for most types and stages of kidney cancer.
Here, you're also surrounded by the strength of one of the nation's largest and most experienced comprehensive cancer centers, which has all the support and wellness services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
There's always hope beyond what you see.
MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.
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Prevention & Screening
Many cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes and regular
But it’s precisely that drug and groundbreaking type of cancer treatment that eventually saved his life.
Philip was on his way home from a business trip to South Carolina when he began feeling pain in his right side and leg. He told his wife he wasn’t feeling well, and she took him to a doctor the following Monday.
“I wasn’t sure if I had testicular cancer or what, but my right testicle was hurting, too,” Philip says. “The doctor in Memphis started feeling around on my abdomen and found a hard spot right below my rib. And he said, ‘That’s not supposed to be there.’”
A CT scan taken that same day revealed a tumor weighing almost four pounds hiding in his upper abdomen.
“I didn’t even know it was there,” says Philip, who had surgery that Friday. After the first tumor was removed, doctors discovered another one on his adrenal gland that was moving into his liver. Philip was diagnosed with metastatic renal cell carcinoma, a type of kidney cancer.
The MD Anderson journey begins
Philip’s local doctors prescribed a new chemotherapy drug called Votrient (pazopanib) to successfully treat some spots they saw on his lungs. Next, they tried to remove the remaining tumor with a second surgery. But the surgery didn’t work.
So, in the spring of 2013, Philip decided to come to MD Anderson.
“We heard it was one of the best cancer centers in the country,” Philip says. “I knew it would have the best treatment for the type of cancer I had. And at that point, my options were running out.”
Nivolumab gamble pays off
Limited options also prompted Philip to take a gamble on a clinical trial for Nivolumab with Nizar M. Tannir, M.D.
Every other Tuesday for three years, Philip received an infusion of Nivolumab, a powerful immunotherapy drug. By the end of the first eight weeks, his largest tumor had shrunk by 30%, and by the spring of 2015, his tumors were virtually undetectable.
“Immunotherapy takes my immune system and targets the cancer cell directly,” Philip says. “I didn’t realize that there was anything out there like this treatment until I came to MD Anderson. But every time we went back, there was good news. It gave me a little glimmer of hope.”
Advice for survivors
Philip has now been in remission for more than a year. He is back at work, traveling frequently and feeling energized. He has a message for other cancer patients seeking treatment at MD Anderson.
“Remain hopeful,” Philip says. “The human body is stronger than anyone thinks. I’m living proof.”
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