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Certain signs and symptoms could suggest that a child might have a Wilms tumor (or another type of kidney tumor), but exams and tests are needed to find out for sure.
If your child has signs or symptoms that suggest they might have a kidney tumor, the doctor will want to get a complete medical history to learn more about the symptoms and how long they have been there. The doctor may also ask if there’s a family history of cancer or birth defects, especially in the genitals or urinary system, as this might point to an increased risk or Wilms tumors.
The doctor will also do a physical exam to look for possible signs of a kidney tumor or other health problems. The focus will probably be on your child's abdomen (belly) and on any increase in blood pressure, which is another possible sign of a kidney tumor. Blood and urine samples might also be collected and tested (see “Lab tests” below).
If the doctor thinks your child might have a kidney tumor, they will probably get one or more imaging tests. These tests use sound waves, x-rays, magnetic fields, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of the body. Imaging tests might be done for a number of reasons, including:
Ultrasound is often the first imaging test done if the doctor suspects your child has a tumor in the abdomen. This test is easy to have, does not use radiation, and it gives the doctor a good view of the kidneys and the other organs in the abdomen.
This test can also show if the tumor is growing into the main veins coming out of the kidney. This can help in planning for surgery, if it's needed.
The CT scan uses x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of parts of your child’s body, including the kidneys. This is one of the most useful tests to look for a tumor inside the kidney. It’s also helpful for checking whether a cancer has grown into nearby veins or has spread to organs beyond the kidney, such as the lungs. Your child will need to lie very still on a table while the scans are being done. Younger children may be given medicine to help keep them calm or even asleep during the test to help make sure the pictures are clear.
An MRI scan creates detailed images using radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays, so there is no radiation involved. This test might be done if the doctor needs to see very detailed images of the kidney or nearby areas. For example, it might be done if there’s a chance that a kidney tumor might have reached a major vein (the inferior vena cava) in the abdomen. An MRI might also be used to look for possible spread of cancer to the brain or spinal cord if doctors are concerned the cancer may have spread there.
Your child may have to lie inside a narrow tube, which is confining and can be distressing. The test also requires a person to stay still for several minutes at a time. Younger children may be given medicine to help keep them calm or even asleep during the test.
Chest x-rays may be done to look for any spread of Wilms tumor to the lungs, as well as to have a baseline view of the lungs to compare with other x-rays that might be done in the future. This test might not be needed if a CT scan of the chest is done.
Lab tests might be done to check urine and blood samples if your child’s doctor suspects a kidney problem. They may also be done after a Wilms tumor has been found.
A urine sample may be tested (urinalysis) to see if there are problems with the kidneys. Urine may also be tested for substances called catecholamines. This is done to make sure your child doesn’t have another kind of tumor called neuroblastoma. (Neuroblastomas often start in the adrenal glands, which are just on top of each kidney.)
Most of the time, imaging tests can give doctors enough information to decide if a child probably has a Wilms tumor, and therefore if surgery should be done. But the actual diagnosis of Wilms tumor is made when a small piece of the tumor is removed and checked under a microscope. The cells in Wilms tumors have a distinct appearance when looked at this way. Doctors also look at the sample to determine the histology of the Wilms tumor (favorable or anaplastic), as described in What Are Wilms Tumors?
Most often, a sample is removed during surgery to treat the tumor. Sometimes if the doctors are less certain about the diagnosis or if they aren’t sure the tumor can be removed completely, a sample of the tumor may be taken during a biopsy as a separate procedure before surgery.
See Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer to learn more about different types of biopsies, how the biopsy samples are tested in the lab, and what the results might tell you.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Chintagumpala M, Muscal JA. Presentation, diagnosis, and staging of Wilms tumor. UpToDate. Accessed at www.uptodate.com/contents/presentation-diagnosis-and-staging-of-wilms-tumor on August 22, 2018.
Fernandez CV, Geller JI, Ehrlich PF, et al. Chapter 29: Renal Tumors. In: Pizzo PA, Poplack DG, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2016.
National Cancer Institute. Wilms Tumor and Other Childhood Kidney Tumors Treatment (PDQ®). 2018. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/kidney/hp/wilms-treatment-pdq on August 22, 2018.
Last Revised: October 17, 2018
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