What is kidney cancer? Symptoms, causes and prevention

The kidneys consist of two bean-shaped organs that are located on top of the upper back wall of the abdomen. Their key role is to remove excess water, salt and waste products from the body by turning them into urine. Kidney cancer is an illness in which cells divide uncontrollably in the kidneys, which causes lumps of tissues called tumours. Tumours can be benign or cancerous and spread to other parts of the body. Kidney cancer is rare in people under 50 years old and can be cured if it is detected early. This guide will explore kidney cancer, highlighting the causes, symptoms and prevention/treatments available.

What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer refers to any type of cancer that affects the kidneys. Cancer is a condition in which cells grow and reproduce uncontrollably in the body. These cells, called cancerous cells, destroy healthy cells and tissues (such as organs) as they develop and continue to spread. The process of spreading to different parts of the body, from where the cancer began originally, is referred to as metastasis. Primary kidney cancer starts in the kidneys, while secondary kidney cancer is a cancer that has spread from another part of the body to the kidneys.

The most common types of primary kidney cancers are:

  • Renal cell carcinoma: this is the most common type of kidney cancer, accounting for more than 8 out of 10 kidney cancer cases. It develops in the lining of the smallest tubes in the kidney which help to filter blood and make urine.
  • Transitional cell carcinoma: this type of cancer starts in the transitional cells that line the renal pelvis and ureter.
  • Renal sarcoma: this type of primary kidney cancer affects the connective tissues or blood vessels of the kidneys. It is much rarer than renal cell and transitional cell cancers.

What are the symptoms of kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer does not usually present any symptoms in the early stages. However, as the condition becomes more advanced symptoms may include:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Persistent lower back pain on one side
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • A high temperature
  • Swollen neck glands
  • High blood pressure
  • Coughing up blood

It is essential to note that the symptoms above mentioned aren’t necessarily a sign of cancer. However, it is important that you see your GP to assess the cause of any such symptoms.

What are the causes of kidney cancer?

The causes of kidney cancer vary and aren’t always clear. Kidney cancer can occur in perfectly healthy individuals for unknown reasons; however, the following factors increase the risk of developing kidney cancer:

  • Smoking: smokers have an increased risk of developing kidney cancer.
  • High blood pressure: sustained high blood pressure can also increase your risk.
  • Obesity: Cancer Research UK estimates that obesity causes nearly a quarter of kidney cancers in the UK.
  • Kidney failure treatment: long term dialysis increases the risk of kidney cancer
  • Family history of kidney cancer
  • Certain genetic conditions such as Von Hippel-Lindau disease and Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome.

How to prevent and treat kidney cancer


There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing kidney cancer such as:

  • Quitting smoking: if you are a smoker, you should quit smoking to decrease your risk of kidney cancer as well as other types of cancers and health conditions.
  • Maintaining a healthy BMI: stay active and eat a healthy, balanced diet in order to maintain a healthy weight and avoid complications from being overweight or obese.
  • Treating your high blood pressure: your GP will be able to discuss medicinal options to reduce your high blood pressure and keep it under control. You can also make small lifestyle changes that can help reduce your high blood pressure, such as exercising more and changing your diet.


Treatment will depend on what stage the cancer is at (i.e. how advanced the cancer is) and its type. Treatments may include one or more of the following:

  •       Surgery to remove part or all of the kidneys
  •       Ablation to kill cancer cells by heating or freezing them
  •       Radiotherapy to kill other cancer cells with high doses of radiation
  •       Targeted therapy: to kill cancerous cells by focusing on specific abnormalities within the kidney cancer cells.
  •       Embolisation: to cut off the blood supply to the cancer

How can I get tested for kidney cancer?

At a clinic

At present, there is no routine screening test for kidney cancer. However, you can opt for our “Complete health assessment” package, which includes a kidney function test that is used to assess kidney function.

Our Cancer Awareness Health Assessments are available for those over 40 years old who would like to assess their risk of certain cancers, as well as include a kidney function check. We offer a Female Cancer Risk Health Assessment which estimates the risk of bowel, stomach and ovarian cancer. We also offer a Male Cancer risk Health Assessment which includes a bowel, stomach and prostate cancer risk assessment.

Our packages consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with a Health Assessment Specialist, which you can easily book online at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics available nationwide. You will receive a wide array of other key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.