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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Kidney cancer symptoms

Kidney cancer is often difficult to detect in its early stages. In fact, before the disease has grown significantly or spread, kidney cancer is most commonly caught when it’s discovered by an X-ray or ultrasound performed for another reason. Many factors contribute to this delayed diagnosis, including the location of the kidneys—deep inside the body, where small tumors are less likely to be seen or felt during a physical exam. Once the disease has grown or advanced beyond the kidneys—generally to nearby lymph nodes or to the lungs, bones or liver—signs are more likely to develop, but they are often mistaken for less serious conditions.

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common form of kidney cancer. When diagnosed early, the cancer is generally limited to one kidney, and may be treated with surgery to remove the affected organ. One-third of renal cell carcinoma patients are diagnosed with metastatic disease.

cancer symptoms

Common kidney cancer symptoms

The most common signs of kidney cancer include:

  • Blood in the urine, known as hematuria, which may make urine look rusty or dark red
  • Low back pain or pressure on one side that doesn’t go away
  • A mass or lump on the side or lower back
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
  • A persistent fever not caused by infection
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Swelling of the ankles and legs
  • In men, a cluster of enlarged veins, called a varicocele, around a testicle, typically, the right testicle

Although these symptoms may indicate kidney cancer, they also may be caused by other, less serious health issues. Some kidney cancer patients experience none of these signs, and others experience different symptoms entirely.

No routine screening tests have yet been developed to detect early-stage kidney cancer, but scheduling an appointment with a urologist—a doctor who specializes in treating diseases of the urinary system—may help determine whether diagnostic tests for kidney cancer are warranted. These tests may include a physical exam, blood or urine test, X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan, biopsy and/or lab tests. For example, blood chemistry tests are often performed when kidney cancer is suspected because they measure kidney function, and because the disease may affect the levels of certain chemicals in the blood. High blood calcium levels may suggest the cancer has spread to the bones.

The cause of the disease isn’t typically known. Certain factors may lead to an increased risk of kidney cancer, though, including smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, workplace exposures to certain substances such as the metal cadmium and organic solvents, certain medications such as non-prescription pain relievers and diuretics, and a family history of kidney cancer. Certain genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau syndrome and Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome, also may increase a person’s risk.

Preventive measures to lower risk factors for kidney cancer include quitting smoking, lowering blood pressure, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eating a mostly plant-based diet that’s low in fat. It’s important to tell your doctor about family members who have had kidney cancer, or if they have been diagnosed with an inherited condition linked to kidney cancer. Your doctor may recommend imaging tests if you have a significant family history of the disease, if you have been treated by long-term dialysis, or if you have had radiation to the kidney in the past.

Last Revised: 04/11/2018