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What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the kidney. About 9 out of 10 kidney cancers are renal cell carcinoma (RCC), sometimes called renal cell adenocarcinoma. RCCs start in the cells lining tiny tubes in the kidney’s nephrons. The information on our website is about RCC.

In the early stages of RCC, the tumour is in the kidney only. Usually one kidney is affected, but in rare cases there is a tumour in both kidneys. As the cancer grows, it can spread to areas near the kidney, such as the surrounding fatty tissue, veins, adrenal glands, lymph nodes, ureters or the liver. It may also spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bones.

There are several types of RCC, based on how the cells look under a microscope.

clear cellmakes up about 75% of RCC cases; cancer cells look empty or clear
papillarymakes up about 10–15% of RCC cases; cancer cells are arranged in finger-like fronds
chromophobemakes up about 5% of RCC cases; cancer cells are large and pale
other types of RCCmake up about 5–10% of RCC cases; include renal medullary carcinoma, collecting duct carcinoma, MiT family translocation RCC, sarcomatoid RCC and other very rare types

Are there other types?

RCC is the most common type of kidney cancer, but there are other less common types:

Urothelial carcinoma (or transitional cell carcinoma) – This can begin in the ureter or in the renal pelvis, where the kidney and ureter meet. Urothelial carcinoma of the kidney or ureter behaves and is treated like bladder cancer (another type of urothelial cancer), rather than like RCC.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Bladder Cancer’

Wilms tumour (or nephroblastoma) – This type of kidney cancer is most common in younger children, but it is still rare.

Visit Children’s Cancer for more information.

Secondary cancer – Very rarely, cancer can spread from the original (primary) cancer to the kidney. This is known as secondary cancer (metastasis). This  secondary cancer is not kidney cancer and it behaves more like the original cancer.

For more information, see our booklet on the primary cancer.

How common is kidney cancer?

More than 3600 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer in Australia each year. It makes up about 2.5% of all cancers. It is twice as common in men as in women, and is the sixth most diagnosed cancer in Australian men. The risk of kidney cancer increases with age, and most cases occur in people over 50.

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Understanding Kidney Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Daniel Moon, Urologic Surgeon, Australian Urology Associates, and Honorary Clinical Associate Professor, The University of Melbourne, VIC; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Ian Basey, Consumer; Gregory Bock, Urology Cancer Nurse Coordinator, WA Cancer and Palliative Care Network, North Metropolitan Health Service, WA; Tina Forshaw, Advanced Practice Nurse Urology, Canberra Health Services, ACT; Dr Suki Gill, Radiation Oncologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Karen Walsh, Nurse Practitioner, Urology Services, St Vincents Private Hospital Northside, QLD; Dr Alison Zhang, Medical Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and Macquarie University Hospital, NSW.