Kidney Cancer (Adult) - Renal Cell Carcinoma

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can kidney cancer be found early?

Many kidney cancers are found fairly early, while they are still confined to the kidney, but others are found at a more advanced stage. There are a few reasons for this:

  • These cancers can sometimes grow quite large without causing any pain or other problems.
  • Because the kidneys are deep inside the body, small kidney tumors cannot be seen or felt during a physical exam.
  • There are no recommended screening tests for kidney cancer in people who are not at increased risk. This is because no test has been shown to lower the overall risk of dying from kidney cancer.

Some tests can find some kidney cancers early, but none of these is recommended to screen for kidney cancer in people at average risk.

A routine urine test (urinalysis), which is sometimes part of a complete medical checkup, may find small amounts of blood in the urine of some people with early kidney cancer. But many things other than kidney cancer cause blood in the urine, including urinary tract infections, bladder infections, bladder cancer, and benign (non-cancerous) kidney conditions such as kidney stones. And some people with kidney cancer do not have blood in their urine until the cancer is quite large and might have spread to other parts of the body.

Imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can often find small kidney cancers, but these tests are expensive. Ultrasound is less expensive and can also detect some early kidney cancers. One problem with these tests is that they can’t always tell benign tumors from small renal cell carcinomas.

Often, kidney cancers are found incidentally (by accident) during imaging tests for some other illness such as gallbladder disease. These cancers usually are causing no pain or other symptoms when they are found. The survival rate for these kidney cancers is very high because they are usually found at a very early stage.

For people at increased risk of kidney cancer

People who have certain inherited conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease, have a higher risk of kidney cancer. Doctors often recommend that these people get regular imaging tests such as CT, MRI, or ultrasound scans to look for kidney tumors. Kidney cancers that are found early with these tests can often be cured.

It is important to tell your doctor if any of your family members (blood relatives) has or had kidney cancer, especially at a younger age, or if they have been diagnosed with an inherited condition linked to this cancer, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease. Your doctor may recommend that you consider genetic counseling and testing to see if you have the condition.

Before having genetic tests, it’s important to talk with a genetic counselor so that you understand what the tests can − and can’t − tell you, and what any results would mean. Genetic tests look for the gene mutations that cause these conditions in your DNA. They are used to diagnose these inherited conditions, not kidney cancer itself. Your risk may be increased if you have one of these conditions, but it does not mean that you have (or definitely will get) kidney cancer. For more information on genetic testing, see our document Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know.

Some doctors also recommend that people with kidney diseases treated by long-term dialysis have regular tests to look for kidney cancer.


Last Medical Review: 02/24/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2014