Diagnosing kidney cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 20, 2022.

A thorough and accurate kidney cancer diagnosis is the first step in developing a kidney cancer treatment plan. Your integrated team of kidney cancer care experts will use a variety of tests and tools designed for diagnosing kidney cancer, evaluating the disease and developing your individualized treatment plan. Throughout your treatment, we'll use imaging and laboratory tests to monitor your response to treatment and modify your plan when needed.

Examples of the types of procedures used for diagnosing kidney cancer include:

Kidney biopsy: If an imaging test shows evidence of a possible malignant tumor, a biopsy may be performed to determine if the mass is cancerous. We perform these diagnostic tests under local anesthesia, by inserting a needle directly into the tissue. The extracted tissue or cells are then inspected under a microscope to diagnose and stage the tumor.

CT scan: A CT scan for kidney cancer uses X-ray images to present detailed images of the kidneys.

Lab tests used to diagnose kidney cancer include:

  • Advanced genomic testing looks for DNA alterations in cancer cells that may be driving the growth of tumor. By identifying the mutations that occur in a cancer cell's genome, we may better understand what caused the tumor and tailor treatment based on these findings.
  • Nutrition panel is a test used to evaluate patients for deficiency of nutrients, such as vitamin D and iron. The test helps us identify the nutrients patients need replaced or boosted to support their quality of life.

MRI may be useful for kidney cancer detection and diagnosis, because it has greater soft tissue contrast than a CT scan.

PET/CT scan: A PET (positron emission tomography)/CT scan is an advanced nuclear imaging technique that combines CT scan technology with positron emission tomography into one machine. A PET/CT scan shows both the structure and function of cells and tissues in the body during a single imaging session. In the case of kidney cancer, this scan provides a more comprehensive view to determine the presence of abnormal activity, even before a tumor may have developed.

Urinalysis may be used to look for blood in the urine. Because blood in the urine may be caused by an infection or other benign conditions, before making a cancer diagnosis, we examine the urine cells under a special microscope to help us detect cancerous activity. This procedure is called urine cytology.

Learn more about kidney cancer types

Next topic: How is kidney cancer treated?

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