Kidney cancer
The main cause of kidney cancer is altered DNA or a genetic mutation. These mutations lead to a potentially fatal, uncontrolled cell growth in the kidneys.

Your kidneys are a pair of bean-shaped organs attached to the abdominal wall whose main functions are to:

  • Balance salt and water levels in the body
  • Maintain blood pressure
  • Excrete waste from the body

The main cause of kidney cancer is altered DNA or a genetic mutation. These mutations lead to a potentially fatal, uncontrolled cell growth in the kidneys.

Multiple factors can increase the risk of causing these DNA changes. These are called risk factors, which may be modifiable (diet changes, lifestyle changes) or nonmodifiable (genes, family history, gender).

What are the different types of kidney cancers?

The table below shows types of kidney cancers percentage.

Types of renal (kidney) cancers percentage
Kidney cancer type Percentage
Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) About 90% of all renal cell cancers
Papillary renal cell carcinoma About 10% of all renal cancers
Transitional cell carcinoma 5 to 10% of all renal cancers
Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma About five% of all renal cancers

Collecting duct RCC

Multilocular cystic RCC

Medullary carcinoma

Mucinous tubular and spindle cell carcinoma

Neuroblastoma-associated RCC

Transitional cell carcinomas

Wilms tumors

Renal sarcomas

About 1% of all renal cancers

What inherited gene mutations can increase the risk of kidney cancer?

One of the main risk factors of certain kidney cancers is inherited gene mutations. These inherited conditions are very rare, but the genes responsible for them can run in families. This is why it’s important for people with these syndromes to get regular imaging tests to look for new kidney tumors.

Table: Inherited genetic syndromes, characteristics, and associated genes
Syndrome Characteristic Mutated (altered) gene
Von Hippel-Lindau disease
  • Increased risk for developing clear cell kidney cancer (RCC) especially at a younger age
  • Noncancerous tumors of the eyes, brain, spinal cord, pancreas, and adrenals (pheochromocytoma)
VHL gene
Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma
  • Tendency to develop RCC
MET gene
Hereditary leiomyoma-renal cell carcinoma
  • Smooth muscle tumors called leiomyomas (fibroids) of the skin and uterus (in women)
  • Higher risk for developing papillary type RCCs
FH gene
Birt-Hogg-Dubé (BHD) syndrome
  • Small noncancerous skin tumors
  • Increased risk of different kinds of kidney tumors
Familial renal cancer
  • Tumors called paragangliomas of the head and neck region
  • Thyroid cancers
  • Tendency to get kidney cancer in both kidneys before age 40
Cowden syndrome
  • High risk of breast, thyroid, and kidney cancers
PTEN gene
Tuberous sclerosis
  • Multiple, noncancerous tumors in the skin, brain, lungs, eyes, kidneys, and heart
  • Kidney tumors are most often non-cancerous, but occasionally, they can be clear cell RCC
TSC1 and TSC2

What are the risk factors for kidney cancer?

Each year, more than 65,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with kidney cancer. Understanding the risk factors may be helpful for regular screening. Early detection of kidney cancer is associated with better treatment outcomes.

10 Risk factors for kidney cancer include:

  1. Age: Cancer risk increases with age, and kidney cancer is no exception. Most cases of kidney cancer are seen in people who are 45 years old or older. Wilms tumor, however, is a type of kidney cancer that is more often seen in children.
  2. Gender: Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is about twice as common in men as in women.
  3. Ethnicity: African Americans have a slightly higher risk of developing RCC than Caucasians.
  4. Family history of kidney cancer: People with a family history of renal cell cancer, especially a sibling with renal cell cancer, have a higher chance of developing the disease.
  5. Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of developing RCC, and the risk is proportional to the number of cigarettes smoked per day. While risk can be reduced if you quit smoking, it can take years to reduce it to the level of a non-smoker.
  6. Exposure to chemicals: Many studies indicate that people who have workplace exposure to certain substances and heavy metals such as trichloroethylene, asbestos, lead, and cadmium have an increased risk for RCC. People who work in the dye, battery, plastic, or paint industries may be especially susceptible.
  7. Dialysis: People with end-stage kidney disease who receive long-term dialysis for a failed kidney have a slightly higher risk of developing kidney cancer.
  8. Obesity: Overweight people have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer.
  9. High blood pressure: According to certain studies, people with high blood pressure have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer. This risk does not seem to go down even if the person is treated for hypertension.
  10. Certain medicines: Excessive use of nonaspirin painkillers such as naproxen, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen is linked to a 25% higher risk of developing kidney cancer.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/29/2021