Bilateral kidney cancer is when kidney cancer affects both of your kidneys. The main treatment for this type of cancer is surgery. The outlook for people with cancer in both kidneys is similar to having cancer in one kidney.

According to the American Cancer Society, kidney cancer is among the top 10 most common cancers in both sexes, although lifetime risk is higher in men.

Language matters

The term “men” is used above to accurately report the information found in the article resource. This term has been historically used to gender people, and your gender identity may not align with how your body responds to this disease. A doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances will translate into diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment.

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Most people who develop kidney cancer have it only in one kidney. But in rare situations, it can affect both of your kidneys. This is called bilateral kidney cancer.

Read on to learn what the estimated outlook is for people with bilateral cancer as well as incidence rates and treatment options.

How common is bilateral kidney cancer?

Bilateral kidney cancer is when you have kidney cancer in both kidneys. Overall, bilateral kidney cancer is rare. It accounts for only 1–5% of all renal cell carcinomas, the most common type of kidney cancer.

Bilateral kidney cancer is typically more common in people who have a family history of kidney cancer or who have certain genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary carcinoma.

But bilateral kidney cancer can also happen in people with no known family history of kidney cancer. This is called sporadic bilateral kidney cancer.

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The outlook, or how long people with bilateral kidney cancer are estimated to live, depends on many factors, including:

  • the stage of your cancer
  • how aggressive your cancer is
  • the type of treatment used and how your cancer responds to it
  • your level of kidney function
  • your age and overall health

The type of kidney cancer you have also plays a role. There are two types of bilateral kidney cancer:

  • Synchronous: In the synchronous type, the cancer is already in both of your kidneys at the time you receive the diagnosis. Or it develops in your other kidney shortly after you receive a diagnosis of unilateral (one-sided) kidney cancer.
  • Metachronous: In the metachronous type, cancer develops in your other kidney months to years after you receive a diagnosis of unilateral kidney cancer.

A 2019 study found that the 5-year cancer-specific survival rate was higher for people with metachronous bilateral kidney cancer (93.6%) than it was for people with synchronous bilateral kidney cancer (51.5%).

Overall survival rates for people with bilateral kidney cancer

A 2016 study found the overall 5-year survival rate for people with bilateral kidney cancer to be 89.4%, which the researchers note is comparable with those who have unilateral nonmetastatic kidney cancers. Individuals with higher-grade (more aggressive) cancers were more likely to have a recurrence.

Outlook for people with bilateral kidney cancer vs. unilateral kidney cancer

A 2020 study compared survival rates between people with unilateral and bilateral kidney cancers. It found that having bilateral cancer doesn’t influence overall survival in people who’ve had a radical nephrectomy (RN). Poorer outlook was associated with:

  • older age
  • higher tumor grade
  • larger tumor size
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What are the survival rates for kidney cancer in general?

The table below shows the 5-year relative survival rates for all kidney cancer (bilateral and unilateral) according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Database of the National Cancer Institute.

SEER stage5-year survival
Local: cancer remains in the kidneys92.9%
Regional: cancer has spread into nearby tissues73.8%
Distant: cancer has spread to distant tissues17.4%

How fast does kidney cancer grow?

How fast a kidney cancer grows depends on your age and overall health, and the type and specific characteristics of your cancer.

Aggressive types of kidney cancer that tend to spread quickly include:

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The goal of bilateral kidney cancer treatment is to eliminate or manage your cancer while preserving the function of your kidneys.

Surgery for bilateral kidney cancer

Surgery is generally the preferred treatment for bilateral kidney cancer. Kidney cancer surgery can be done as an open, laparoscopic, or robotic procedure. The two main types of procedure are:

  • Partial nephrectomy (PN): A PN removes only the area with the cancer. It’s often used for early stage cancers and has the benefit of preserving the function of your remaining kidney tissue.
  • Radical nephrectomy (RN): An RN removes your entire kidney as well as some surrounding tissue. It’s typically done when:
    • The cancer is large.
    • There are multiple tumors in your kidney.
    • The location of your cancer isn’t optimal for a PN.
    • Your cancer has already spread to nearby or distant tissues.

The National Cancer Institute notes that the following surgical options may be used for bilateral kidney cancers:

Surgery for bilateral kidney cancer may be done in stages, meaning you’ll receive two separate procedures. For example, you may have a PN on one kidney and then have a PN on the other after you’ve recovered from your first procedure.

Other treatments for bilateral kidney cancer

It’s possible that other treatments may be used for bilateral kidney cancer. This may be the case if:

  • There’s a high risk of your cancer coming back after surgery.
  • You can’t have surgery or choose not to have surgery.
  • Your cancer has spread outside your kidney to nearby or distant tissues.

Additional treatments for kidney cancer can include:

Is bilateral kidney cancer curable?

It’s possible that bilateral kidney cancer can be completely removed if the cancer is diagnosed and treated while at an early stage. This becomes increasingly difficult the more advanced your cancer is.

It’s also possible for cancer to come back after treatment. This is called recurrence.

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Bilateral kidney cancer is rare, making up only a small percentage of kidney cancers. It often affects people with a genetic predisposition to kidney cancer but can happen sporadically as well.

The main treatment for bilateral kidney cancer is surgery, which aims to manage your cancer while preserving as much of your kidney function as possible. Other treatments may be used as well, depending on your individual situation.

The outlook for people with bilateral kidney cancer is generally comparable with those with unilateral kidney cancer. Because every individual with kidney cancer is different, be sure to discuss your specific outlook with your care team.