Kidney stones and kidney cancer can cause similar symptoms, and there may be a link between the two. These health conditions also have differences in treatment, risk factors, and outlook.

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Kidney stones and kidney cancer are two health conditions that affect your kidneys. Your kidneys serve the vital function of filtering wastes from your blood so that they can be removed from your body as urine.

While kidney stones and kidney cancer do share some similarities and a possible link, there are also many key differences between the two.

Kidney stones are hard deposits that can form in one or both of your kidneys. Most kidney stones, about 80%, are calcium kidney stones made from calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate. Other types of kidney stones include those made from uric acid, struvite, or cystine.

Kidney stones vary in size and shape, typically ranging from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a pebble. In rare cases, they may be the size of a golf ball!

Kidney cancer happens when cancer starts in the kidneys. Most kidney cancers, about 90%, are a type of cancer called renal cell carcinoma.

Cancer happens when cells in the body start to grow and divide uncontrollably, invading surrounding tissues and potentially spreading to other parts of the body.

Genetic changes cause cancer. These can be inherited from your parents or can occur over your lifetime, either naturally or due to certain environmental factors.

Some studies have found a link between kidney stones and kidney cancer. However, a 2018 article notes that these results aren’t conclusive, and more research into this topic is needed.

An older 2014 review found that a history of kidney stones was associated with an increased risk of kidney cancer, but only in males. A 2019 cohort study also found that kidney stones were associated with an increased kidney cancer risk.

The way kidney stones may increase kidney cancer risk is still unknown. It’s possible that increased inflammation or infections due to kidney stones may drive potentially cancerous changes in the kidney.

Additionally, both conditions share some health-related risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure.

Kidney stones and kidney cancer do share some symptoms, such as pain and blood in your urine. But while pain is a very predominant symptom of kidney stones, it may not always happen in kidney cancer.

In fact, many kidney cancers are detected incidentally when a person is being tested or treated for another health condition.

When symptoms of kidney cancer are present, about 60% of people have blood in the urine but no other specific symptoms. Only 10% to 15% of people with kidney cancer have the so-called “classic triad” of pain, blood in the urine, and a mass you can feel.

Kidney stones and kidney cancer share great differences in many other areas as well.

Kidney stones

Kidney stones typically don’t have symptoms while they’re still in the kidney. Often, symptoms appear when kidney stones enter the ureters, which are the tubes that carry urine from your kidneys to your bladder.

The symptoms of kidney stones can include:

Kidney cancer

Many people with early-stage kidney cancers don’t have symptoms. When symptoms are present, they may include:

Kidney stones

A smaller kidney stone may be able to pass through your urinary tract without treatment. During this time, you can use pain medication and oral or intravenous hydration to ease pain and discomfort. It also helps to drink a lot of water to help move the stone along.

The oral medication tamsulosin may be prescribed to help stones pass.

Some kidney stones may need to be broken up using lithotripsy or removed using ureteroscopy or percutaneous nephrolithotomy. This may be necessary if they’re larger or are blocking the flow of urine, or if an infection is present.

Kidney cancer

The treatment of kidney cancer depends on many factors. These include, but aren’t limited to, the type and stage of your cancer as well as your age and overall health.

Surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible is often part of treatment. This can include the removal of some or all of the affected kidney and potentially some of the surrounding tissues.

Other treatments that may be used, often in combination with other treatments, include:

Kidney stones

The risk factors for kidney stones are:

Kidney cancer

The risk factors for kidney cancer include:

Kidney stones

Most people with kidney stones are able to recover completely. Complications are rare but can include infections and a loss of kidney function.

If you’ve had one kidney stone, you’re at risk of having another. Roughly 50% of people who’ve had a kidney stone develop another one within 5 years.

Kidney cancer

Your outlook for kidney cancer depends on many factors, such as:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • the stage and grade of your cancer
  • how the cancer responds to treatment
  • your age and overall health

The overall 5-year survival rate for kidney cancer is 76.5%. Generally speaking, your outlook is best when cancer is found and treated early. If you’ve received a kidney cancer diagnosis, talk with your care team about your individual outlook.

Can kidney stones be prevented?

Yes. A few basic steps for preventing kidney stones include:

How common is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is one of the top 10 most common types of cancer in adults. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 81,800 new diagnoses of kidney cancer in the United States in 2023.

Can kidney cancer be prevented?

Not all kidney cancers can be prevented, but you can reduce your risk by:

  • not smoking or quitting if you do
  • managing any underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure or obesity
  • avoiding workplace exposure to potentially harmful chemicals

Kidney stones and kidney cancer both affect the kidneys. Both share some risk factors and specific symptoms like pain and blood in your urine. There may also be a link between kidney stones and the development of kidney cancer.

If you’re experiencing blood in your urine or pain in your side or lower back, see a doctor to find out what may be causing it.