Kidney Cancer (Adult) Renal Cell Carcinoma Overview

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Treating Kidney Cancer TOPICS

Surgery for kidney cancer

Surgery is the main treatment for most kidney cancers. The chances of surviving kidney cancer without surgery are small. Even people with advanced kidney cancers are often helped by surgery.

Depending on the stage and location of your cancer, you might have one of the types of surgery below.

Radical nephrectomy

In this operation, the whole kidney, the attached adrenal gland, and some nearby fatty tissue are removed. (Sometimes the adrenal gland can be left in place.) Nearby lymph nodes are sometimes removed, too. This is called regional lymphadenectomy. Most people do fine with only one kidney.

Laparoscopic (“keyhole”) nephrectomy: In this surgery, the kidney is removed through small incisions (cuts) in the skin instead of through one large incision. The surgeon puts special long, thin instruments in the cuts to see the kidney and do the surgery. Another way to do this surgery is for the surgeon to sit at a control panel near the operating table and move precise robotic arms to do the operation.

The main benefit of this type of surgery is that a large incision isn’t needed to remove the kidney. This often results in a shorter hospital stay, faster recovery, and less pain afterwards. But either type of laparoscopic surgery requires a lot of skill and experience. If you’re thinking about this approach, ask your doctor how many of these surgeries they have done.

Partial nephrectomy (nephron-sparing surgery)

In this operation, the surgeon removes only the part of the kidney with the cancer. The rest is left in place. This type of surgery is the preferred treatment for many people with early stage kidney cancer. It is often done to remove single small tumors and is being done more in patients with larger tumors.

This may not be an option if the tumor is in the middle of the kidney or is very large, if there is more than one tumor in the kidney, or if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or distant organs.

Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy: Some doctors remove the part of the kidney laparoscopically or using robotic arms (as described above). But this is a difficult operation, and it should only be done by a surgeon with a lot of skill and experience.

Removal of metastases

Sometimes surgery is done to remove cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. This might be done to try to cure the cancer (along with removing the kidney tumor), or it might be done to help relieve pain or other symptoms from the cancer. It is most often done if there are only a few tumors that can be removed easily.

Risks and side effects of surgery

Surgery always involves some risks. Here are some possible risks and side effects of surgery for kidney cancer:

  • Pain
  • Bleeding during or after surgery that may require blood transfusions
  • Blood clots, which can travel to the lungs
  • Wound infection
  • Damage to internal organs and blood vessels during surgery
  • Unwanted air in the chest outside of the lungs
  • Bulging of nearby internal organs into the incision (hernia)
  • Leakage of urine into the belly (after partial nephrectomy)
  • Failure of the remaining kidney

For more about surgery to treat cancer, see our document Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 04/29/2014
Last Revised: 04/29/2014