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 tumor.
Most tumors of the kidney are malignant (cancer), but some are benign (not cancer). There is no imaging test that can reliably tell if a kidney tumor is benign or cancerous. If you have been diagnosed with a kidney tumor or kidney cancer, it’s important to seek treatment as early as possible.
Kidney cancer diagnosis
If you have symptoms that signal kidney cancer, your doctor will ask you questions about your health; your lifestyle, including smoking and drinking habits; your family medical history; and questions related kidney cancer symptoms. Your doctor will then order tests to diagnose the problem.
These tests may include:
Blood and urine tests: There is no blood or urine test that can conclusively diagnose someone with kidney cancer. These tests can help doctors diagnose or rule out other possible causes for your symptoms, as well as indicate that kidney cancer may be present.
Imaging tests: These exams will focus on the kidneys and possibly parts of the body kidney cancer frequently spreads to, including the lungs, bones and, less often, the brain and spine. Imaging exams may include:
- CT or CAT (computed axial tomography) scans. This is the most common imaging exam for kidney cancer.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.
- Chest X-Ray
- Bone Scan
Biopsy: A biopsy is the removal of a very small piece of suspected cancer tissue for examination under a microscope. This is the only way to definitively diagnose kidney cancer prior to surgery. The tissue is typically retrieved by an interventional radiologist, who uses imaging technology to help guide a long, thin needle to the suspected tumor. This is a minimally invasive procedure.
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.
Once the stage is determined, it stays the same even if treatment is successful or the cancer spreads.
Kidney Cancer Stages
(source: National Cancer Institute)
In stage I, the tumor is 7 centimeters or smaller and is found in the kidney only.
In stage II, the tumor is larger than 7 centimeters and is found in the kidney only.
In stage III, one of the following is found:
- the cancer in the kidney is any size and cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes; or
- cancer has spread to blood vessels in or near the kidney (renal vein or vena cava), to the fat around the structures in the kidney that collect urine, or to the layer of fatty tissue around the kidney. Cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IV, one of the following is found:
- cancer has spread beyond the layer of fatty tissue around the kidney and may have spread into the adrenal gland above the kidney with cancer or to nearby lymph nodes; or
- cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs, brain, adrenal glands, or distant lymph nodes.
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