Kidney Cancer Prevention & Early Detection

  • Compared to other cancers, early diagnosis of kidney cancer can be a challenge. - Roberto Pili, MD, Chief of the Genitourinary Section and Co-Leader of the Genitourinary Program

Risk Factors

Kidney cancer develops most often in people over the age of 60, but no one knows the exact cause of this disease. Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop kidney cancer. Studies have found the following risk factors for kidney cancer:

  • Smoking: Cigarette smoking is a major risk factor. Cigarette smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop kidney cancer. Cigar smoking also may increase the risk of this disease.
  • Obesity: People who are obese have an increased risk of kidney cancer.
  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the risk of kidney cancer.
  • Long-term dialysis: Dialysis is a treatment for people whose kidneys do not work well. It removes wastes from the blood. Being on dialysis for many years is a risk factor for kidney cancer.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome: VHL is a rare disease that runs in some families. It is caused by changes in the VHL gene. An abnormal VHL gene increases the risk of kidney cancer. It also can cause cysts or tumors in the eyes, brain, and other parts of the body. Family members of those with this syndrome can have a test to check for the abnormal VHL gene. For people with the abnormal VHL gene, doctors may suggest ways to improve the detection of kidney cancer and other diseases before symptoms develop.
  • Family History: Those with a strong family history of renal cell cancer are 2 to 4 times more likely to develop the disease. The risk is highest in brothers or sisters of those who have the cancer.
  • Occupation: Some people have a higher risk of getting kidney cancer because they come in contact with certain chemicals or substances in their workplace. Coke oven workers in the iron and steel industry are at risk. Workers exposed to asbestos or cadmium also may be at risk.
  • Gender: Males are more likely than females to be diagnosed with kidney cancer. Each year in the United States, about 40,000 men and 20,000 women learn they have kidney cancer.

High Risk/Early Detection

A patient is considered high risk for kidney cancer if they:

  • Have an inherited condition, such as VHL
  • Have a sibling or other close relative was diagnosed with the disease
  • Have been on dialysis for an extended period

If you are considered high risk, your doctor may recommend careful observation, a CT scan and an MRI to ensure kidney cancer is detected early.

Currently, there are no recommended screening tests for kidney cancer in those people who are not at increased risk. Regular checkups and an open dialogue with your physician about changes in your own physical condition are the best ways to ensure early detection.