Renal Cell Carcinoma

Renal cell carcinoma is a type of cancer that affects the kidneys of adults, particularly as they age. A comprehensive understanding of renal cell carcinoma, encompassing its risk factors and the latest treatment options, is crucial for patients, healthcare providers, and researchers engaged in combating this formidable disease. As medical research advances, there is growing optimism for the development of more targeted and effective treatments, which holds promise for improving the prognosis and outcomes for individuals affected by renal cell carcinoma.

Renal cell carcinoma.
Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults. Source.

What is Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults, originating from the lining of the proximal convoluted tubule, a part of the very small tubes in the kidney that transport urine. Renal cell carcinoma often grows as a single mass, but more than one tumor can grow in one or both kidneys. Early-stage renal cell carcinoma typically does not cause obvious symptoms, making early detection challenging. When symptoms do appear, they may include blood in the urine, back pain, and weight loss.

How Common is Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Renal cell carcinoma accounts for approximately 2-3% of all adult cancers, marking it as a significant health concern. It is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults, primarily affecting those in their 60s and 70s. The incidence of renal cell carcinoma has been gradually increasing over the past few decades, which may partly be due to improved detection methods allowing for the diagnosis of smaller, asymptomatic tumors.

What are the different types of Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) encompasses several subtypes, each with unique characteristics and implications for treatment. The most prevalent is clear cell RCC, accounting for about 70-80% of cases, named for the clear appearance of its cancer cells under a microscope. Following this is papillary RCC, the second most common type, comprising 10-15% of cases. 

Chromophobe RCC, making up around 5% of cases, is characterized by pale cells with distinct cell borders, identifiable under microscopic examination. A rarer and more aggressive form is the collecting duct RCC. Additionally, cases that do not fit into these categories are classified as unclassified RCC. Each subtype can behave differently and may respond differently to various treatments, underscoring the importance of accurate identification for effective management of the disease.

What Causes Renal Cell Carcinoma?

The exact cause of renal cell carcinoma is unknown; however, it is believed to be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Changes in the DNA within kidney cells can cause the cells to grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor. Some of these genetic mutations are inherited, but most occur during a person's lifetime and are not passed on to children. Various environmental factors, such as smoking and obesity, can increase the risk of mutations.

What are the Risk Factors for Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Several factors increase the likelihood of developing renal cell carcinoma. Age is a significant factor, with the risk escalating, particularly for individuals over 60. There is also a noticeable sex disparity, as men are more prone to renal cell carcinoma than women. Lifestyle choices play a role too; for instance, smoking heightens the risk. Obesity is another crucial factor, potentially leading to hormonal changes that could trigger renal cell carcinoma. 

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, also emerges as an independent risk factor, irrespective of medication. Occupational or prolonged exposure to certain chemicals, such as asbestos, cadmium, some herbicides, and organic solvents, notably trichloroethylene, has been linked to an increased risk. People with advanced kidney disease, especially those requiring long-term dialysis, face a higher risk. 

A family history of renal cell carcinoma, especially in close relatives, can elevate one's chances, as can certain genetic conditions, including von Hippel-Lindau syndrome or Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome. Understanding these risk factors is crucial in recognizing and managing the potential onset of renal cell carcinoma.

Can I Prevent Renal Cell Carcinoma?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent renal cell carcinoma. The development of renal cell carcinoma, like many cancers, can sometimes be a matter of chance, a reality that some individuals unfortunately face. While specific lifestyle changes may not directly reduce the risk of developing renal cell carcinoma, they can contribute to an overall better quality of life. 

These adjustments are important for general well-being rather than specifically targeting renal cell carcinoma risk reduction. These include maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, controlling high blood pressure, and reducing exposure to harmful chemicals. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and regular physical activity also contribute to overall health.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Renal cell carcinoma often remains asymptomatic in its early stages, making it challenging to detect. As the disease progresses, symptoms may appear, including blood in the urine (hematuria), a lump or pain in the side or lower back, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, fever, and night sweats. However, these symptoms are not exclusive to renal cell carcinoma and can be caused by other conditions. Therefore, any persistent or unusual symptoms should prompt a visit to a healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation.

What is the Genetics of Renal Cell Carcinoma?

The genetics of renal cell carcinoma play a crucial role in its development and progression, with each subtype often associated with distinct genetic alterations. In clear cell RCC, the most common subtype, genetic changes frequently involve the VHL gene, which plays a critical role in cell growth and blood vessel formation. 

These genetic mutations can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and tumor formation. Papillary RCC is commonly linked to alterations in the MET genes, and a variety of different genetic changes, reflecting its heterogeneous nature. Chromophobe RCC typically exhibits multiple genetic alterations, including changes in specific chromosomes. 

Beyond these subtypes, some cases of RCC are related to hereditary syndromes like von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, hereditary papillary renal carcinoma, and Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome, which involve inherited genetic mutations. Understanding these genetic factors is not only crucial for diagnosing and classifying RCC but also for guiding targeted treatment approaches, as certain genetic mutations may respond to specific therapies.

How is Renal Cell Carcinoma Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Renal cell carcinoma usually begins with a physical examination and a review of the patient's medical history. Imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scans, and MRI are commonly used to detect abnormalities in the kidney. If these tests suggest the presence of RCC, a biopsy may be performed to confirm the diagnosis. During a biopsy, a small sample of kidney tissue is removed and examined under a microscope for cancer cells. Blood and urine tests are also helpful in assessing the overall health of the kidneys.

What is ‘Staging’ of Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Staging of renal cell carcinoma is a critical process that determines the extent of cancer spread and guides the treatment strategy. It is generally classified into four distinct stages. Stage I is identified when the tumor is 7 cm or smaller and confined solely to the kidney. In Stage II, the tumor is larger than 7 cm but remains within the kidney's boundaries, not extending to nearby structures. 

Progressing to Stage III, the cancer exhibits a more aggressive behavior, either spreading to nearby lymph nodes or invading the major blood vessels of the kidney, such as the renal vein or inferior vena cava. The most advanced stage, Stage IV, signifies that the cancer has metastasized beyond the kidney to other organs, like the lungs, bones, or liver, or to distant lymph nodes. 

The stage of renal cell carcinoma at diagnosis is a crucial determinant of prognosis and treatment options; higher stages typically require more aggressive and comprehensive treatment approaches. Understanding the exact stage of renal cell carcinoma is therefore fundamental to formulating an effective treatment plan and managing the disease progression.

How is Renal Cell Carcinoma Treated?

The treatment of renal cell carcinoma is tailored to the specific needs of each patient, taking into account the stage of the cancer, overall health, and any other underlying conditions. Surgery is often the primary treatment for localized renal cell carcinoma, involving the removal of part or all of the affected kidney. In addition to surgery, targeted therapy plays a significant role; this involves drugs that specifically target the abnormalities in cancer cells, impeding their growth and spread. 

Immunotherapy is another crucial approach, leveraging the body's immune system to combat cancer cells. While radiation therapy is not typically used as the primary treatment for RCC, it is often employed to alleviate pain or other symptoms in cases where the cancer has spread. Additionally, less invasive procedures like cryotherapy and radiofrequency ablation, which destroy cancer cells by freezing or heating them, are increasingly being used. These treatments, each with its own risks and potential side effects, offer a comprehensive approach to managing RCC and are often combined to achieve the best possible outcomes for the patient. 

In the treatment of renal cell carcinoma, along with surgery, targeted therapies, and immunotherapy, palliative care plays a crucial role, especially in advanced stages of the disease. Palliative care focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of cancer, aiming to improve the quality of life for both the patient and their family. This supportive care can include pain management, nutritional support, psychological counseling, and other therapies to address the complex needs of patients with renal cell carcinoma.

What are the Side Effects of Renal Cell Carcinoma Treatment?

The treatment of renal cell carcinoma can lead to various side effects, depending on the type and extent of the treatment. Surgery can result in pain and a risk of infection, while loss of kidney function may occur if a significant portion of the kidney is removed. Targeted therapies and immunotherapy can cause side effects such as fatigue, nausea, skin rash, high blood pressure, and diarrhea. 

Cryotherapy and radiofrequency ablation may lead to bleeding, infection, and damage to surrounding tissues. Radiation therapy might result in fatigue, skin changes, and nausea. It is important for patients to discuss potential side effects with their healthcare team to effectively manage them.

What is Metastatic Renal Cell Carcinoma?

Metastatic renal cell carcinoma refers to the most advanced form of kidney cancer, where the cancer cells have spread beyond the original tumor in the kidney to other parts of the body. This process, known as metastasis, signifies a critical stage in the progression of RCC. Metastatic RCC can spread to various organs, most commonly the lungs, bones, liver, and brain, as well as to distant lymph nodes. 

This stage of cancer presents significant challenges in treatment and management, as the cancer cells in different locations may respond differently to therapy. Treatment for metastatic RCC often involves systemic approaches, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy, aimed at controlling the growth and spread of cancer cells throughout the body. The prognosis for metastatic RCC depends on several factors, including the patient's overall health, the number and location of metastases, and how well the cancer responds to treatment. 

The advancement of medical treatments, particularly in targeted and immunotherapies, has improved outcomes and quality of life for many patients with metastatic RCC, offering hope even in advanced stages of the disease.

Can Renal Cell Carcinoma Come Back?

Yes, renal cell carcinoma can recur after treatment. The risk of recurrence depends on various factors, including the original cancer's stage and grade. Regular follow-up care, including imaging tests and blood tests, is crucial for early detection of recurrence. A recurrence can happen years after the initial treatment, emphasizing the importance of long-term follow-up in RCC patients.

What is the Prognosis and Survival for Renal Cell Carcinoma?

The prognosis and survival rates for renal cell carcinoma vary considerably based on several factors, including the stage of the disease at diagnosis, the type of RCC, the patient’s overall health, and how well the cancer responds to treatment. Generally, the earlier renal cell carcinoma is detected and treated, the better the prognosis. For localized RCC, where the cancer is confined to the kidney and has not spread, the prognosis is typically very favorable, with high 5-year survival rates. 

However, the survival rates decrease significantly if the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or distant organs, as seen in metastatic RCC. The survival rates also differ among the various subtypes of RCC, with clear cell carcinoma typically having a different prognosis compared to other types like papillary or chromophobe RCC. Additionally, the presence of certain genetic mutations can influence the response to treatment and, consequently, the prognosis.

Living with Renal Cell Carcinoma

Living with renal cell carcinoma can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. Adjusting to life after treatment may involve coping with the side effects of treatment, fear of recurrence, and changes in kidney function. It is crucial for patients to maintain regular follow-up appointments, adopt a healthy lifestyle, and seek support from healthcare professionals, support groups, or counseling services. Staying informed about the disease and treatment options, maintaining a positive outlook, and having a strong support network can significantly help in managing life with RCC.


Renal cell carcinoma, though a serious diagnosis, is a condition that can be managed with appropriate treatment and lifestyle adjustments. Understanding the side effects of treatment, the possibility of recurrence, the overall prognosis, and the importance of a supportive environment can help individuals navigate the complexities of the disease. With advances in medical treatment and a focus on holistic well-being, patients with RCC can lead fulfilling lives.

Disclaimer: This blog post is intended solely for informational purposes. It is not meant to serve as medical advice. For professional medical guidance, please consult your doctor.

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Further Reading

  1. Klatte T, Rossi SH, Stewart GD. Prognostic factors and prognostic models for renal cell carcinoma: a literature review. World Journal of Urology. 2018;36(12):1943-1952.
  2. Lee H, Lee M, Lee SE, et al. Outcomes of pathologic stage T3a renal cell carcinoma up-staged from small renal tumor: emphasis on partial nephrectomy. BMC Cancer. 2018;18(1):427.
  3. Sahoo TP, Desai C, Agarwal S, et al. ExPert ConsEnsus on the management of Advanced clear-cell RenaL celL carcinoma: INDIAn Perspective (PEARL-INDIA). BMC Cancer. 2023;23:737.
  4. Turner J, Simoes A, Edwards A, Raman R. Medical Management of Renal Cell Cancer. IntechOpen. 2020.
  5. Rothwell JA. Advancing the diagnosis and classification of renal cell carcinomas. BMC Medicine. 2021;19:221.
  6. Su D, Singer EA, Srinivasan R. Molecular pathways in renal cell carcinoma: recent advances in genetics and molecular biology. Curr Opin Oncol. 2015 May;27(3):217-23.


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