Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is a cancer of your kidneys. RCC may be symptom-free in the early stages, but the earlier it’s caught, the more likely you will make a full recovery.

Read on to learn about RCC, its symptoms, causes, treatment, and more.

RCC is also called hypernephroma, renal adenocarcinoma, or renal or kidney cancer. It’s the most common kind of kidney cancer found in adults.

The kidneys are organs that help get rid of waste while also regulating fluid balance. There are tiny tubes in the kidneys called tubules. These help filter the blood, aid in excreting waste, and help make urine.

RCC occurs when cancer cells start growing uncontrollably in the lining of the tubules of the kidney.

Medical experts don’t know the exact cause of RCC, but a number of risk factors can make someone more likely to develop RCC.

Risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • high blood pressure
  • certain toxic environmental exposures
  • taking certain medications
  • advanced kidney disease and dialysis
  • other kidney cancers
  • certain genetic diseases

RCC also tends to affect people of lower socioeconomic status, and research has shown that having a family history of RCC is linked to a doubled risk of developing it yourself.

In the United States, RCC tends to occur more commonly in African American, American Indian, and Alaska Native populations. It is also twice as common in males than in females.

As RCC progresses, symptoms may include:

  • a lump in the abdomen
  • blood in urine
  • unexplained weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • vision problems
  • persistent pain in the side
  • excessive hair growth (in females)

When is it time to see a doctor?

When RCC is in its early stages, it is possible to be symptom-free. For this reason, early detection is difficult.

If you begin to notice any of the symptoms above, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

This doesn’t mean you have cancer, but it’s important to rule it out, especially if you have a family history.

There are five kinds of standard treatments for RCC. One or more may be used to treat your cancer.

  • Surgery: Surgery can range from a partial to total nephrectomy (kidney removal), depending on the spread of the disease. A radical nephrectomy may involve removing surrounding tissue, lymph nodes, and the adrenal gland. With both kidneys removed, dialysis or a transplant is necessary. Arterial embolization is also an option to block blood flow to the tumor.
  • Radiation therapy: This involves using high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. The radiation can be given externally by a machine or placed internally using seeds or wires.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemo uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It can be given orally or intravenously, depending on what medication is chosen. This allows the drugs to go through the bloodstream and reach cancer cells that may have spread to other body parts.
  • Biologic therapy: This is also called immunotherapy, which works with your immune system to attack the cancer. Enzymes or substances the body makes are used to defend your body against cancer.
  • Targeted therapy: This is a newer kind of cancer therapy. Drugs are used to attack certain cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. Some drugs work on blood vessels to prevent blood flow to the tumor, “starving” and shrinking it.

Clinical trials are another option for some people with RCC. Clinical trials test new treatments to see if they’re effective in treating the disease.

During the trial, you’ll be closely monitored, and you can leave the trial at any time. Talk with your treatment team to see if a clinical trial is a viable option for you.

If your doctor suspects that you may have RCC, they’ll ask about your personal and family medical history. They will then do a physical exam.

Findings that can suggest RCC include swelling or lumps in the abdomen or, in males, enlarged veins in the scrotal sac (varicocele).

If RCC is suspected, your doctor will order a number of tests to get an accurate diagnosis. These may include:

  • complete blood count: a blood test conducted by drawing blood from your arm and sending it to a lab for evaluation
  • CT scan: an imaging test that allows your doctor to take a closer look at your kidneys to detect any abnormal growth
  • abdominal and kidney ultrasounds: a test that uses sound waves to create a picture of your organs, allowing your doctor to look for tumors and problems within the abdomen
  • urine examination: tests used to detect blood in the urine and to analyze cells in the urine, looking for evidence of cancer
  • biopsy: the removal of a small piece of kidney tissue, done by inserting a needle into the tumor and drawing out a tissue sample, which is then sent to a pathology lab to rule out or confirm the presence of cancer

If you’re found to have RCC, more tests will be done to find out if and where the cancer has spread. This is called staging.

RCC is staged from stage 1 to stage 4 in order of ascending severity. Staging tests can include a bone scan, PET scan, and chest X-ray.

Approximately one-third of people with RCC have cancer that has spread at the time of diagnosis.

Follow up

If your RCC was localized and removed surgically, or if you’re now in remission, you will need to be screened for recurrence.

How often you’re screened can vary depending on your doctor’s preference, but it’s often every 12–24 months for 3–5 years for low risk tumors.

For moderate risk cancers, it’s usually every 6–24 months, and for high risk cancers every 6–12 months. For both moderate and severe, these screenings are done for 5 years.

Living with cancer can be challenging. It can be exhausting to cope with the various treatments and their side effects.

If you’re able to take simple measures to support your body during this time, focus on a nutritious diet and exercise if possible.

It can also help to practice good hygiene and speak with your doctor about vaccinations to prevent getting sick while your immune system is weakened.

Finally, speak with your doctor about pain management. Over-the-counter analgesics may be enough in some cases, but you may need stronger medication to help you lead a more comfortable life.

Finding support during this time is also key. Learn more on how to improve daily life with renal cell carcinoma.

The outlook after being diagnosed with RCC depends largely on whether the cancer has spread and how soon treatment is started. The sooner it’s caught, the more likely you are to have a full recovery.

If the cancer has spread to other organs, the survival rate is much lower than if it’s caught before spreading.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate for RCC is over 77%. This means that over two-thirds of those diagnosed with RCC live at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

If the cancer is cured or treated, you may still have to live with the long-term effects of the disease, which can include poor kidney function.

If a kidney transplant is done, chronic dialysis may be required, as well as long-term drug therapy.

How aggressive is renal cell carcinoma?

There are different types of RCC with varying degrees of aggressiveness. The rate of progression or spread is going to depend on the specific type of tumor you have.

Where does renal cell carcinoma spread?

RCC often spreads to the lungs and surrounding organs. Lung metastasis is present in about about 10–20% of cases.

Can renal cell carcinoma be prevented?

It’s difficult to prevent kidney cancer because, in many cases, the cause is unknown.

However, it may be helpful to avoid the risk factors you can control, for example, by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking.

What is the life expectancy of a person with renal medullary carcinoma?

Renal medullary carcinoma (RMC) is a very rare form of RCC, but it’s almost always fatal. According to research, the median survival rate is only 4 months.

RCC is the most common type of kidney cancer, with a higher than 77% survival rate after diagnosis.

Risk factors include smoking, obesity, and a family history. However, there are treatments that can delay the progression, and research into new treatments is ongoing.

If you’re experiencing any of the potential symptoms of RCC, see your doctor for an evaluation.