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Patient experiencing kidney pain

Kidney cancer develops in the kidneys, the two bean-shaped organs located below the ribcage on either side of the spine. The primary function of the kidneys is to remove excess salt and water from the blood, then convert those waste products into urine that flows out of the body during urination. Kidney cancer occurs when cells in one or both kidneys undergo abnormal DNA changes that cause the cells to grow and multiply uncontrollably. The excess cells then bind together and form cancerous tumors.

The precise causes of kidney cancer are not yet well understood within the general medical community, but researchers have determined that some people are more at risk than others. Kidney cancer risk factors include any behaviors or conditions that research shows may put someone at a greater risk of developing kidney cancer. While physicians can’t pinpoint why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t, experts have identified certain risk factors that seem to increase the likelihood that a person will develop kidney cancer.

Common risk factors for kidney cancer

Although anyone can potentially develop kidney cancer, advanced age is known to be a key risk factor. Most people who have renal cell carcinoma were diagnosed after age 55, and the average age at the time of diagnosis is 71. The condition is relatively uncommon in people younger than 45. Furthermore, research shows that kidney cancer tends to occur more frequently in men than women, and is slightly more common in African Americans than people of other races.

Risk factors beyond age and gender

Additional possible risk factors for patients who may get kidney cancer are an active area of research. Those possible risk factors include:

  • Smoking. The use of cigarettes, cigars and pipes can increase the likelihood of developing kidney tumors as well as many other types of cancer. Research has demonstrated that the more someone smokes and the longer they smoke, the greater their risk of developing kidney cancer. Although quitting smoking can decrease their chance, it may take several years before their risk decreases to that of a person who has never smoked tobacco.
  • Excess body weight. Being overweight or obese can heighten the risk of kidney cancer, particularly if the excess weight is a result of consuming a high-fat diet.
  • A family history of kidney cancer. Among those with a strong family history of renal cell carcinoma, the risk is highest among people who have an affected sibling, which may be related to shared genes, shared exposures or both.
  • Hypertension. Studies suggest that high blood pressure increases the risk of kidney cancer, regardless of whether the hypertension is controlled with medication.
  • Advanced kidney disease and long-term dialysis. A treatment for kidney failure, dialysis assumes the function of healthy kidneys by mechanically filtering the blood to remove waste products.
  • Certain hazardous substances. Exposure to arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, some herbicides, benzene or trichloroethylene (TCE), which are present in certain occupational settings, can increase the risk of kidney cancer.
  • Certain hereditary conditions. Inherited conditions such as von Hippel-Lindau disease, Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome, hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma, hereditary renal oncocytoma and hereditary leiomyoma renal cell carcinoma have been linked to kidney tumors.

Kidney cancer screening for high-risk individuals

Currently, there is no kidney cancer screening method that is reliable enough to be recommended for routine use among the general public. This can make early detection a challenge because a kidney tumor can potentially grow very large without causing noticeable symptoms. Some telltale signs to watch for include bloody urine, anemia, persistent fever, unexplained weight loss, stomach pain and fatigue.

Additionally, if you have one or more of the known risk factors for kidney cancer, your physician may suggest a preventive regimen of periodic imaging tests, such as:

  • Intravenous pyelogram (IVP) X-ray imaging
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
  • Ultrasound imaging

The goal of kidney cancer screening is early detection. A prompt diagnosis followed by appropriate treatment can lead to the best possible outcome and quality of life.

Moffitt's approach to kidney cancer prevention and treatment

The multispecialty team within Moffitt Cancer Center's Urologic Oncology Program studies the risk factors that lead to kidney cancer as part of our larger mission to discover and provide the most effective treatments available. Our ambitious clinical trial program continues to make important strides in preventing, diagnosing and treating kidney cancer, and provides access to emerging new therapies before they’re made widely available. Thanks in part to our robust research initiatives, Moffitt is recognized as Florida’s No. 1 cancer hospital and is a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Brandon Manley

Knowledge is a powerful tool in the fight against cancer. By gaining an understanding of the various risk factors associated with kidney cancer, you will be better prepared to take preventive steps to protect yourself. If you would like to learn about your individual kidney cancer risk profile, we encourage you to meet with a specialist in the Urologic Oncology Program or speak with a Moffitt genetic counselor. Referrals are not required to request an appointment—just call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online.