RCC is a type of kidney cancer that can be cured if diagnosed and treated while it’s localized in the kidney. But even if the cancer has spread, effective treatment options exist to help slow its progression.

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is a cancer of the kidneys. Your kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located on either side of your spine, just below the ribcage. They help filter your blood and remove waste and extra fluid from your body.

RCC starts in the small tubes of the kidney that filter blood. It often develops as one tumor in a kidney. But some people may have multiple tumors in one kidney or tumors in both kidneys.

RCC is the most common type of kidney cancer. It accounts for about 9 out of 10 cases. It’s sometimes called hypernephroma, renal adenocarcinoma, or kidney and renal pelvis cancer.

If it’s caught and treated early, RCC can be cured. There are treatment options for RCC even in the late stages or if the cancer was treated and has come back (recurrent).

Read on to learn more about some of your treatment options after receiving an RCC diagnosis.

Cancer survival rates are an estimate of the percentage of people with cancer expected to survive a certain amount of time. They exclude the risk of dying due to causes other than cancer.

A survival rate can give you a general idea of your prognosis, but it can’t predict exactly what will happen to you. Everyone responds to cancer and its treatment differently.

Survival rates are based on data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database, which is maintained by the National Cancer Institute.

SEER tracks 5-year survival rates for people with kidney cancer. It groups people based on how far the cancer has spread. SEER does not group cancer by stages 1 (I) through 4 (IV), but instead uses the following terms:

  • Localized: The cancer hasn’t spread outside of the kidney.
  • Regional: The cancer has spread outside of the kidney to nearby lymph nodes, organs, tissues.
  • Distant: The cancer has spread, or metastasized, to distant lymph nodes or organs, such as the brain or lungs.

The overall 5-year survival rate for kidney and renal pelvis cancer of all stages is 76.5% in the United States. This rate is an estimate based on data from 2012–2018 of the number of people who survived the condition during that time.

About 66% of new cases of kidney cancer are diagnosed while it’s still localized in the kidney. The 5-year survival rate for these early-stage cancers is 93%. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the survival rate drops to 72.3%. The survival rate is 15.3% if the cancer has already metastasized at the time of diagnosis.

Treatment options for RCC depend on the stage of the cancer. The likelihood of curing kidney cancer is higher if it’s caught and treated at an early stage, before it has spread outside of the kidney.

If the cancer is still localized in the kidney (stages I and II) or spread only to the nearby veins or lymph nodes (stage III), doctors usually want to remove it with surgery. If they can remove all of the cancer with surgery, you may be cured of the condition.

If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (stage IV), surgery may no longer be an option. Doctors instead may recommend systemic therapies, which include immunotherapy and targeted therapies. A cure may be unlikely at this stage, but treatment can nonetheless improve your chances of survival.

If cancer comes back after treatment, it’s called a recurrence. If the recurrence is localized in the kidney, it may be possible to treat with surgery. If the recurrence is elsewhere in the body, the treatment is the same as for stage IV kidney cancer.

If your RCC tumor is very small (less than 4 centimeters, or 1 1/2 inches), your doctor may recommend active surveillance. This is using imaging such as CT or ultrasound to monitor the tumor’s size and treating it only if it grows.

The most effective treatment for RCC is surgery. There are three main types:

  • Partial nephrectomy: Removal of part of the kidney. This may be an option if the tumor is smaller than 3 inches.
  • Simple nephrectomy: Removal of the entire kidney.
  • Radical nephrectomy: Removal of the entire kidney plus surrounding tissues such as the adrenal glands and possibly regional lymph nodes.

Your doctor may recommend you receive adjuvant therapy after surgery to lower the risk of the cancer returning. Examples of adjuvant therapy are the drugs sunitinib (Sutent) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda).

Other treatment options for RCC that can’t be removed completely by surgery or has spread include:

  • Immunotherapy: Drugs that help the body’s immune system to fight the cancer, such as:
    • ipilimumab (Yervoy)
    • nivolumab (Opdivo)
    • pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
  • Targeted therapy: Drugs that slow or stop cancer growth by targeting specific proteins in cancer cells. These include:
    • axitinib (Inlyta)
    • lenvatinib (Lenvima)
    • sunitinib (Sutent)
    • cabozantinib (Cabometyx)
  • Arterial embolization: A surgical procedure to cut off the blood supply to a tumor.
  • External beam radiation therapy (EBRT): A procedure that uses radiation to target tumors.

Immunotherapy and targeted therapy are often used in combination. Therefore, you may receive two immunotherapy drugs, two targeted therapy drugs, or one of each.

Can it be cured completely?

It’s possible to cure RCC completely. The best chances for a complete cure are with a tumor that hasn’t spread beyond the kidney.

It may not be possible to cure RCC that has spread outside of the kidney. But treatment can help slow its progression and help you manage symptoms.

Will I need a kidney transplant?

After a nephrectomy, you can continue to live with just one kidney. Many people live a full life with a solitary kidney and don’t need a special diet. However, if you injure your remaining kidney or it no longer works, you’ll need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Early detection of kidney cancer can improve the chances of a cure. In the early stages, renal cell carcinomas often don’t cause symptoms. Small tumors are often found by accident when doctors are taking CTs, MRIs, or ultrasounds for other conditions.

If a tumor does cause symptoms, they may include:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • blood in the urine
  • persistent fever
  • anemia
  • lump on the side or lower back
  • low back pain on one side

If you have any of these symptoms, you may consider speaking with your doctor.

Renal cell carcinoma is a highly treatable form of kidney cancer. With early diagnosis, a complete cure is possible if the cancer hasn’t spread outside of the kidney.

Treatment options depend on the stage of the cancer and may include surgical removal of the kidney and systemic therapies.