Kidney Cancer (Adult) Renal Cell Carcinoma Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

What are the risk factors for kidney cancer?

We do not yet know exactly what causes kidney cancer, but we do know that certain risk factors are linked to the disease. A risk factor is anything that affects a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, such as smoking, can be controlled. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can't be changed. But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease may not have had any known risk factors.

Lifestyle and job-related risk factors

Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of getting kidney cancer. The risk seems to be linked to how much you smoke and drops if you stop smoking, but it takes many years to get to the risk level of someone who never smoked.

Weight: A very overweight person has a higher risk of getting kidney cancer.

Job hazards: Many studies suggest that exposure to certain chemicals on the job increases the risk of kidney cancer. Some of these are asbestos, cadmium (a type of metal), some herbicides, benzene, and organic solvents, particularly trichloroethylene.

Inherited risk factors

Kidney cancer can be caused by some rare inherited conditions such as those listed below. People who have these conditions have a much higher risk for getting kidney cancer, but they account for only a small portion of cases overall.

  • von Hippel-Lindau disease
  • Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma
  • Hereditary leiomyoma-renal cell carcinoma
  • Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome
  • Hereditary renal oncocytoma
  • Familial renal cancer

If you know that you have one of these, it is important that you see your doctor often. Some doctors recommend that you have regular imaging tests (such as CT scans).

Other risk factors

Family history: People with family members who have kidney cancer (especially a brother or sister) have a much higher chance of getting the disease.

High blood pressure: The risk of kidney cancer is higher in people with high blood pressure. People with high blood pressure are often treated with drugs, so it is hard to tell if the higher risk is caused by the drugs, by the high blood pressure itself, or both.

Certain medicines: A once popular pain-reliever (called phenacetin) has been linked to kidney cancer. But this medicine has not been used in the United States for over 20 years, and it no longer appears to be a major risk factor. Some drugs used to treat high blood pressure have also been linked to kidney cancer. It’s not clear whether the higher risk is caused by the drugs or the high blood pressure. But people who need these drugs should take them.

Advanced kidney disease: People with advanced kidney disease who need to be on dialysis have a higher risk of kidney cancer. Dialysis is a treatment used to remove toxins from the body in people whose kidneys are not working.

Gender: Kidney cancer is found about twice as often in men as in women. Men are more likely to be smokers and are more likely to be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals at work, which may account for some of the difference.

Race: African Americans have a slightly higher rate of renal cell cancer than whites. The reasons for this are not clear.

Last Medical Review: 11/27/2012
Last Revised: 04/01/2014