Types of Kidney Cancer

Dr. Wade Sexton checks a patient's records

Kidney cancer occurs when cells in one or both kidneys change and begin to grow uncontrollably, eventually forming a tumor. There are several different types of kidney cancer, and each type is determined largely by characteristics such as its location and how the cells appear when examined under a microscope.

The main types of kidney cancer include:

Renal cell carcinoma

Renal cell carcinoma is by far the most common form of adult kidney cancer, accounting for about nine of every 10 diagnoses. This type of kidney cancer tends to grow as a single tumor within one kidney, but is also known to present with two or more tumors within the same kidney, or form tumors within both kidneys.

Additionally, renal cell carcinoma has several subtypes that are determined by how the cells look under a microscope. For instance, clear cell renal cell carcinoma has cells that are very pale or clear, while papillary renal cell carcinoma has cells with finger-like projections. Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma also has pale or clear cells, but the cells are larger and have other recognizable features.   

Most kidney tumors are diagnosed incidentally, meaning without direct symptoms. Typically for symptoms to present tumors are larger, usually around 7-10 cm and above.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of renal cell carcinoma include:

  • A lump on the lower back, side, or stomach
  • Low back pain on one side
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blood in the urine
  • Fever

As is the case with most cancers, renal cell carcinoma is easier to treat when it is diagnosed in an early stage and has not spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body. Treatment plans typically involve surgery to remove tumors and affected tissues, which may include the kidney itself.

Transitional (or Urothelial) cell carcinoma

Also referred to as urothelial cell carcinoma, transitional cell carcinoma forms in the lining of the renal pelvis, or the space within the kidney where urine collects before it is expelled into the bladder. It comprises around 5% to 10% of kidney cancer diagnoses in adults and is strongly linked to tobacco use, as well as exposure to certain chemicals and taking large amounts of pain medicines like phenacetin.

As opposed to kidney cancer, people with transitional or urothelial cell carcinoma usually report the following symptoms:

  • Blood in their urine
  • Unrelenting back pain
  • Frequent or painful urination
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

A combination of surgery and chemotherapy is often used to treat transitional or urothelial cell carcinoma. Some patients may also be candidates for promising new therapies such as fulguration, a procedure that uses electrical currents to destroy cancerous tissues or intrapelvis chemotherapy gel (Jelymto).

Renal sarcoma

Renal sarcoma is a rare type of kidney cancer that originates in the soft tissues of the kidney, such as the connective tissue that encapsulates the kidney (the “capsule”) and surrounding fatty layers. They account for less than 1% of kidney tumors. A combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation is used to address this cancer, which is known to recur following initial treatment. In these cases, additional treatments are often recommended. 

The signs and symptoms of renal sarcoma are much the same as other types of kidney cancer, often involving:

  • A lump around the lower back or side
  • Low back pain on one side
  • Blood in the urine
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever

Lymphoma 

Although rare, it’s possible for lymphoma—or cancer of the lymph system—to affect the kidneys without being present in other areas of the body. More commonly, though, lymphoma originates in lymphocytes in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, thymus or spleen and travels to the kidneys. People who develop kidney lymphoma often have late-stage cancer and experience noticeable changes in health, which can include:

  • Stomach swelling
  • Fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Blood in the urine
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent infections

Chemotherapy is the primary form of treatment for kidney lymphoma, sometimes alongside surgery to remove all or part of the kidney. Other progressive approaches such as targeted therapy, monoclonal antibody therapy and CAR T-cell therapy may be used depending on the type of lymphoma present.

Moffitt's approach to kidney cancer

The experts within Moffitt Cancer Center’s Urologic Oncology Program possess an in-depth understanding of all types of kidney cancer and offer a full scope of diagnostics and treatment under one roof. Our multispecialty team includes physicians who focus exclusively on urologic cancers and routinely address even the most uncommon types of kidney cancer.

As Florida’s No. 1 cancer hospital, Moffitt is committed to employing the most effective and least invasive treatment options available, helping to improve outcomes and enhance quality of life for our patients. We take an individualized approach to treatment that is continually adapted to the characteristics and dynamics of each patient’s cancer. Furthermore, Moffitt spearheads a groundbreaking clinical trial program that gives eligible patients access to promising new therapies before they’re made widely available.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Brandon Manley

If you are experiencing possible symptoms of kidney cancer, are concerned about your risk or would like to receive a second or third opinion regarding kidney cancer treatment, contact Moffitt Cancer Center by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online. No referral is necessary, and we’ll connect you to a Moffitt expert within 24 hours of contact to ensure you receive the timely assistance you require. 

References

Kidney Cancer | Renal Cancer
Kidney Cancer: Introduction
Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer—Patient Version - NCI
Kidney Lymphoma: Symptoms, Treatment Options, and Support