Kidney Cancer | Symptoms and Diagnosis | MedStar Health
Dr Keith Kowalczyk talks with a patient in a clinicial setting

What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is a malignant (cancerous) tumor that begins in the bean-shaped organs in the back, just below the ribcage, on both sides of the body. The kidney's job is to clean the blood from any impurities before sending the waste to the bladder to be stored until urination. Cancer most commonly forms in the tiny tubes that filter waste, and this particular type of kidney cancer is called renal cell carcinoma.

Also called renal cancer, this cancer often goes undetected until imaging for another condition reveals something suspicious. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 81,000 people in the United States are diagnosed every year. While it's nearly twice as common in men than women, it can affect anyone.

Fortunately, the treatment for kidney (renal) cancer has become technologically advanced. Most patients are diagnosed with imaging alone, and surgery often offers the best treatment option for cancers that have not spread. For more advanced-stage kidney cancer, it's crucial to seek care from a multidisciplinary team of urologic oncologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, interventional radiologists, pathologists, radiologists, and other specialists who have extensive experience in using several treatment methods, including clinical trials that offer access to emerging therapies.

At MedStar Health, our team of experts often cares for some of the most complex kidney cancer patients, as we focus exclusively on caring for men and women with urologic cancers. Working together, we're proud to offer the most advanced care available, from kidney-sparing procedures using laparoscopic and robotic surgery to state-of-the-art targeted therapies and immunotherapies that may offer promising treatments for patients who may have run out of options elsewhere.

Symptoms and risk factors

What are common kidney cancer symptoms?

Not everyone with this cancer notices signs or symptoms, especially if the tumor is in early stages. As the cancer grows, signs of kidney cancer may include:

  • Blood in the urine (hematuria)
  • Pain during urination
  • Pain in the pelvis
  • A lump in the lower back or side
  • Unexplained weight loss

Other noncancerous conditions may also cause these symptoms, so it's essential that you discuss anything unusual with a doctor.

Who has an increased risk of developing kidney cancer?

Risk factors are things that increase your risk of getting a disease. Having a risk factor doesn't mean you will develop cancer, as some people with this cancer have no associated risks. However, the following risk factors may increase your chances of kidney cancer:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Obesity
  • Being male
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having a family history of the disease
  • Being on dialysis for advanced kidney disease
  • Having certain rare inherited conditions

Screening and prevention

Can I prevent kidney cancer?

Although some cases are linked to inherited conditions, the cause of most kidney cancers is unknown. As a result, you can't prevent this disease. However, you may be able to lower your risk by:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Achieving a maintaining a healthy weight
  • Managing your blood pressure through exercise and diet

There are no standard screening guidelines, and most people with the disease don't experience kidney cancer symptoms in early stages. However, tell your doctor if you know you have a high risk of disease due to a genetic predisposition or family history. They may recommend meeting with a genetic counselor who can provide personalized recommendations for cancer risk management.

A radiology technician talks to a patient undergoing an MRI scan at MedStar Health. Both people are wearing masks.

Kidney cancer diagnosis

How is this cancer diagnosed?

Many instances of kidney cancer are detected incidentally on imaging performed for other health reasons, such as back pain or kidney stones. To diagnose the disease, your doctor may perform one or more of the following imaging tests:

  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan
  • Bone scan to check for the spread of cancer

Sophisticated imaging scans like CTs and MRIs make finding smaller tumors easier. Unlike other cancers, your doctor can typically determine if the mass on your kidney is malignant from an imaging scan, which may help you avoid a biopsy.

However, in certain scenarios, your doctor may also recommend a biopsy. This involves removing a tiny tissue sample from the tumor using a hollow needle. A pathologist will then examine the tissue under a microscope to gather additional information about your cancer.

Types of cancer

What are the types of kidney cancer?

The most common type of this cancer is renal cell carcinoma (RCC). This classification has several subtypes, including clear cell renal carcinoma and non-clear cell renal carcinomas. The unique characteristics of your renal tumor may affect your treatment options.

In addition to renal cell carcinoma, other types of kidney cancers include the following:

  • Transitional cell carcinoma: These tumors begin in the lining of the renal pelvis, where the ureters connect to the kidneys
  • Renal sarcoma: This rare type begins in the kidney's blood vessels or connective tissue
  • Wilms tumor: These kidney tumors primarily affect children

It's also possible to have benign (noncancerous kidney tumors). Treatment for benign kidney tumors varies based on the size, location, and symptoms related to the mass.

What are the stages of kidney cancer?

Cancer stages describe the extent of disease, considering the tumor's size and how far it has spread. The stages range from one to four:

  • Stage I: The tumor is within the kidney and is less than 7 cm
  • Stage II: The tumor is within the kidney but larger than 7 cm
  • Stage III: The tumor can be any size and may have spread to a major vein or nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage IV (Metastatic disease): The tumor has spread beyond the kidney into the adrenal gland, lymph nodes, and/or other organs


What are the kidney cancer treatment options?

After a kidney cancer diagnosis, patients will receive treatment recommendations based on several factors, including:

  • The type and stage of the tumor
  • The location and depth of the tumor within the kidney
  • Kidney function
  • Overall health

Your care will involve input from several cancer experts in different fields, including urologic oncology, radiation oncology, medical oncology, radiology, pathology, and others. This ensures we consider all options that will lead to the most successful outcome. Depending on each unique case, treatment options may range from active surveillance for very small tumors to open or minimally invasive surgery, ablative therapies, systemic therapies, and/or novel drugs available through clinical trials.

SurgeryDr Keith Kowalcyk uses the DaVinci Xi Surgical System at MedStar Health.

Our urologic oncologists are experts in evaluating if surgery is an appropriate treatment option for you. If surgery is in your best interest, the type of surgery you'd benefit from will vary based on the size and location of your tumor, along with other factors. Many patients undergo one of the following:

  • Partial nephrectomy: Also called kidney-sparing surgery, this procedure involves removing the tumor while leaving the rest of the healthy kidney to preserve kidney function.
  • Radical nephrectomy: This procedure requires your surgeons to remove the entire kidney when it's affected by a large tumor.

Whenever possible, we use minimally invasive techniques such as laparoscopic and robotic surgeries to speed healing and recovery after surgery. During laparoscopic surgery, small instruments are placed into the abdomen, and the kidney or part of the kidney is removed through smaller incisions. This often results in reduced pain, shorter hospital stays, and a quicker return to normal activities than traditional surgery. Robotic-assisted surgery offers the same benefits, allowing your surgeon to operate with exceptional dexterity and precision.

In addition, our surgeons have exceptional experience performing even the most complicated surgeries alongside other specialists for cancers that have spread (metastasized) to minimize kidney cancer symptoms such as bleeding or pain.

Learn More About Urologic Surgery

Interventional Radiology (Ablation)

For some patients who cannot undergo surgery, our interventional radiologists may use imaging to guide minimally invasive procedures to kill cancer cells. These may include:

Learn More About Interventional Radiology


Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells located throughout the body. While this is often an effective treatment for other types of cancer, it is not often used for patients with kidney tumors.

Learn More About Chemotherapy

Immunotherapy and targeted therapy

Immunotherapy is a novel treatment that harnesses a person's immune system to identify and target cancer cells. One class of these drugs, called checkpoint inhibitors, is typically used to help manage metastatic kidney cancer. These are delivered intravenously in an outpatient setting throughout several visits. Similarly, targeted therapies are medications that can effectively attack cancer cells with specific molecular changes. Typically, these are given by mouth in pill form.

If your cancer has spread, a medical oncologist who is part of your care team will determine the therapies that will be most appropriate for you, including the proper dosage and frequency. Regular imaging will be used to evaluate their effectiveness, and you can expect your care team to help monitor any side effects and adjust treatment as necessary.

Learn More About Immunotherapy

Learn More About Targeted Therapy

Radiation therapyDr Andrew Satinsky and radiation technician Cierra Parker perform a scan on a patient at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center.

This cancer treatment uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. As part of your multidisciplinary team, radiation oncologists may recommend radiation therapy for patients who are not good candidates for surgery. In other instances, radiation helps manage painful symptoms associated with metastatic disease.

At MedStar Health, we offer the full range of advanced radiation technologies that allow us to pinpoint radiation to the tumor with incredible accuracy, thereby sparing as much healthy tissue as possible. Patients who undergo radiation therapy will receive some form of external beam radiation therapy, such as image-guided radiation therapy or stereotactic body radiation therapy.

Learn More About Radiation Therapy

Dr Michael Atkins confers with a colleague at the Lombardi Cancer Institute at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Looking for expert care?

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high quality care, second opinions and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

Our locations

Distance from Change locationEnter your location

MedStar Franklin Square Cancer Center at Loch Raven Campus

5601 Loch Raven Blvd.
Russell Morgan Building
First Floor
Baltimore, MD 21239

MedStar Georgetown Cancer Institute at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center

9103 Franklin Square Dr.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute
Suite 220
Baltimore, MD 21237

MedStar Georgetown Cancer Institute at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital

25500 Point Lookout Rd.
First Fl.
Leonardtown, MD 20650

Dr Keith Kowalczyk talks with another medical professional while walking in a clinical office.

Why choose us

Our patients benefit from treatment designed collaboratively by fellowship-trained specialists with extensive experience in treating all types of kidney cancer. Combining the expertise of urologic oncologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, interventional radiologists, pathologists, radiologists, and other specially trained support staff ensures we offer the most advanced treatments available to lead to your best outcome. Patients choose us because:

We have a reputation for caring for some of the most advanced cases of kidney and other urologic cancers. Urologists across the region often seek our opinion or refer patients to us to ensure comprehensive care backed by the latest research in urologic oncology. Because our oncologists focus exclusively on treating urologic cancers, we see more patients—including the most complex cases—than most others in the region. Because we work as a team, we're able to offer the full range of state-of-the-art surgical and therapeutic treatments, including those that may not be available elsewhere.

We offer comprehensive treatment options tailored to your cancer, needs, and goals. Your cancer will be discussed in a multidisciplinary tumor board that allows experts across various specialties to collaborate on a treatment plan that will be most effective for you. Here, you'll find experts in the latest treatments, including active surveillance, interventional radiology, open and minimally invasive surgery, immunotherapy, targeted agents, and radiation therapy. In addition, we can often offer promising clinical trials to patients with tumors that have not responded to other standard treatments.

We're experts in robotic surgery, which provides numerous advantages for patients. Our urologic oncologists are pioneers in using robotic surgery to improve outcomes for patients with kidney cancer and others. When appropriate, robotic-assisted surgery allows surgeons to operate with the highest level of accuracy through smaller incisions. This typically results in less blood loss, shorter hospital stays, and faster recovery for our patients.

Awards and recognition

Recipient of an Accreditation with Commendation, the highest level of approval, from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer (CoC)

Numerous surgeons, medical oncologists, and surgical oncologists recognized as "Top Doctors" by both Baltimore Magazine and the Washingtonian

Magnet® designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Clinical trials and research

3 healthcare professionals walk down a hallway in a medical office while having a discussion..

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are careful studies that evaluate new treatments or treatment combinations to find better ways to care for patients with this disease. At MedStar Health, we may recommend a clinical trial for patients with advanced or metastatic renal cancer.

Learn More

A female scientist works in a clinical laboratory and looks at cells on a computer monitor.


Through our research engine and the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in the region, the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, we continue investigating novel approaches to detecting, diagnosing, and treating kidney and other urologic cancers.

Learn More

Patient stories

A man sits talks with his support group in a clinical setting.

Support services

Throughout your cancer journey, you'll have access to comprehensive support services and specialty care designed to support you physically, emotionally, and otherwise. From peer-to-peer support and counseling to coordination with experts in rehabilitation, urinary health, and more, we're here for you however you need us..

Learn More About Cancer Support Services

Genetic counseling

Although rare, certain kidney cancers may be associated with genetics passed down from a parent to a child. As a result, patients may benefit from meeting with one of our board-certified genetic counselors. Our comprehensive genetic services include assessing your genetic predisposition for cancer, reviewing the benefits or disadvantages of genetic testing, personalized recommendations for prevention and risk management, and more.

Learn More About Genetic Counseling

Personalized rehabilitation

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutrition services can help you regain strength, mobility, and overall quality of life following treatment for kidney cancer. Our rehabilitation experts will customize a training program based on your unique needs and goals to help you move and feel like yourself again.

Learn More About Cancer Rehabilitation


Even after treatment, we're here to guide you through follow-up care that monitors any potential signs of recurrence, helps to manage long-term treatment side effects, and optimizes your overall health. You can have peace of mind knowing we're here to help you navigate any unique concerns that you may encounter as you return to your everyday life cancer-free.

Learn More About the Cancer Survivorship Program