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You have two kidneys, one on each side of the back above the waist. Kidneys filter blood, and the waste is carried in the urine, which is produced by microscopic tubules. Urine flows into the ureter tubes and down into the bladder. Cancer arises from the microscopic tubules inside the kidney. Although kidney cancer usually grows as a single mass within the kidney, 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 beyond the kidney, the chance for successful treatment becomes much lower. Since 2006, new-generation drugs called targeted therapies have become available to control the cancer more successfully than prior medications.
Kidney cancer types
Renal cell carcinoma (cancer) (RCC) is the most prevalent form of kidney cancer. Types of RCC include clear cell, papillary, chromophobe and collecting duct carcinomas. Clear cell carcinoma accounts for 80% of all RCC cases, and most treatments are focused on this type.
Wilms’ tumor is a childhood cancer, responsible for 95% of pediatric kidney cancer cases.
Urothelial cancer of the kidney pelvis and ureter: Cancer of the urinary tract that occurs in the kidney or ureter is called urothelial carcinoma. It is not considered kidney cancer, although it is frequently called that in error.
Some cases of kidney cancer 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 biggest risk for kidney cancer is smoking.
Other kidney cancer risk factors include:
- Age: Most cases occur after age 50
- Gender: Men are more than twice as likely to get kidney cancer as women
- High blood pressure
- Exposure to asbestos, cadmium, and coke (used in making steel), benzene, herbicides and organic solvents
- Advanced kidney disease and long-term kidney dialysis
- Race: African-Americans have a slightly higher rate of kidney cancer
- Rare inherited conditions including von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma
- Family history of kidney disease
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.
Learn more about kidney cancer:
Why choose MD Anderson for your kidney cancer treatment?
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.
Working together, this team of surgical and medical oncologists, as well as a specially trained support staff, utilizes the latest 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 including Sutent® (sunitinib) Nexavar® (sorafenib) Torisel® (temsirolimus) and Avastin® (bevacizumab)
- Immunotherapy, including interferon and interleukin-2
- Cryoablation, radiofrequency ablation and active surveillance
And, at MD Anderson you're 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.
While the American Urological Association estimates the average urologist sees six cancer and non-cancer kidney tumor cases a year, MD Anderson treats more than 700 kidney cancer patients annually. This gives us an extraordinary level of expertise and experience that can make a vital difference in the success of your treatment and recovery.
At MD Anderson, you 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.
And at MD Anderson you’re 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.
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.”