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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 the tiny tubes found in the nephrons.

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, bones or brain.

Subtypes of renal cell carcinoma (RCC)

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 of kidney cancer?

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. It is also known as  upper tract urothelial cancer.

Download our fact sheet ‘Understanding Upper Tract Urothelial 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 a primary cancer somewhere else in the body to the kidney. This is known as secondary cancer  (metastasis). This secondary cancer is not kidney cancer and it behaves more like the primary cancer.

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

This information is about RCC. Other less common types of cancer can start in the kidney, including some sarcomas and lymphomas. Information on these types of cancer aren’t included. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information on other types of kidney cancers.

How common is kidney cancer?

Each year about 4500 Australians are diagnosed with kidney cancer. Men are twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with kidney cancer. It is the sixth most common cancer in men and the tenth most common cancer in women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers). It is more common in people over 50, but it can occur at any age.

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Understanding Kidney Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Alarick Picardo, Urologist, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Heidi Castleden, Consumer; Donna Clifford, Urology Nurse Practitioner, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Mike Kingsley, Consumer; Prof Paul De Souza, Medical Oncologist and Professor of Medicine, Nepean Cancer Care Centre, The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Declan Murphy, Urologist and Director of Genitourinary Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Luke O’Connor, Urology Nurse, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; A/Prof Shankar Siva, Radiation Oncologist and Cancer Council Victoria Colebatch Fellow, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Homi Zargar, Uro‑Oncologist and Robotic Surgeon, Western Health and Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC.