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Kidney Cancer Diagnosis

At MD Anderson, our experts specialize in kidney cancer and use the very latest technology to pinpoint the exact extent and location of each kidney cancer tumor.

If you have been diagnosed with a kidney tumor or kidney cancer, it’s important to be treated as early as possible. This helps improve your chances for successful treatment. Most tumors of the kidney are malignant (cancer), but some are benign (not cancer). There is no imaging test that can tell if a kidney tumor is benign or cancerous.

Kidney Cancer Diagnosis

If you have symptoms that may signal kidney cancer, your doctor will ask you questions about your health; your lifestyle, including smoking and drinking habits; and your family medical history.

One or more of the following tests may be used to find out if you have kidney cancer and if it has spread. These tests also may be used to find out if treatment is working.

Blood and urine tests

Imaging tests, which may include:

  • CT or CAT (computed axial tomography) scans
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans
  • Ultrasound
  • Chest X-Ray
  • Bone Scan

Biopsy and fine needle aspiration (FNA) are sometimes used to obtain a biopsy of the kidney. This involves the insertion of a long, thin needle into the kidney to take a tiny sample of tissue for examination under a microscope. With modern biopsy methods, there is virtually no risk of ‘spreading cancer.’ Our team of radiologists is highly experienced in safe biopsy methods.

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 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 disease is in the body and where it has spread when it is diagnosed. This helps the doctor plan the best way to treat the cancer.

After a biopsy or surgery for removal of the tumor, a grade or nuclear grade is assigned to kidney cancer. The cancer grade is a measure of how likely the cancer is to spread. The pathologist assigns the grade after looking at the tumor cells under the microscope.

Once the staging classification is determined, it stays the same even if treatment is successful or the cancer spreads.

Kidney Cancer Stages

(source: National Cancer Institute)

Stage I: The tumor is 7 centimeters or smaller and is only in the kidney

Stage II: The tumor is larger than 7 centimeters and is only in the kidney

Stage III: Cancer is found in one of the following:

  • The kidney and one nearby lymph node
  • An adrenal gland or the layer of fatty tissue around the kidney, also may be in one nearby lymph node
  • The main blood vessels of the kidney, also may be in one nearby lymph node

Stage IV: Cancer has spread to one of the following:

  • Beyond the layer of fatty tissue around the kidney and possibly to one nearby lymph node
  • To two or more nearby lymph nodes
  • To other organs, such as the bowel, pancreas or lungs and possibly to nearby lymph nodes

Clinical Trials

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Knowledge Center

Find the latest news and information about kidney cancer in our Knowledge Center, including blog posts, articles, videos, news releases and more.