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Renal Cell Carcinoma

(Adenocarcinoma of the Kidneys)

By J. Ryan Mark, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Urology, Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University

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Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is the most common renal cancer. Symptoms can include hematuria, flank pain, a palpable mass, and FUO. However, symptoms are often absent, so the diagnosis is usually suspected based on incidental findings. Diagnosis is confirmed by CT or MRI and occasionally by biopsy. Treatment is with surgery for early disease and targeted therapy, an experimental protocol, or palliative therapy for advanced disease.

RCC, an adenocarcinoma, accounts for 90 to 95% of primary malignant renal tumors. Less common primary renal tumors include transitional cell carcinoma, Wilms tumor (most often in children), and sarcoma.

In the US, about 64,000 new cases of RCC and other kidney tumors and 14,000 deaths (2017 estimates) occur each year. RCC occurs slightly more often in men (male:female incidence is about 3:2). People affected are usually between 50 and 70 yr. Risk factors include the following:

  • Smoking, which doubles the risk (in 20 to 30% of patients)

  • Obesity

  • Excess use of phenacetin

  • Acquired cystic kidney disease in dialysis patients

  • Exposure to certain radiopaque contrast agents, asbestos, cadmium, and leather tanning and petroleum products

  • Some familial syndromes, particularly von Hippel–Lindau disease

RCC can trigger thrombus formation in the renal vein, which occasionally propagates into the vena cava. Tumor invasion of the vein wall is uncommon. RCC metastasizes most often to the lymph nodes, lungs, adrenal glands, liver, brain, and bone.

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms usually do not appear until late, when the tumor may already be large and metastatic. Gross or microscopic hematuria is the most common manifestation, followed by flank pain, FUO, and a palpable mass. Sometimes hypertension results from segmental ischemia or pedicle compression. Paraneoplastic syndromes occur in 20% of patients. Polycythemia can result from increased erythropoietin activity. However, anemia may also occur. Hypercalcemia is common and may require treatment. Thrombocytosis, cachexia, or secondary amyloidosis may develop.


  • CT with contrast or MRI

Most often, a renal mass is detected incidentally during abdominal imaging (eg, CT, ultrasonography) done for other reasons. Otherwise, diagnosis is suggested by clinical findings and confirmed by abdominal CT before and after injection of a radiocontrast agent or by MRI. A renal mass that is enhanced by radiocontrast strongly suggests RCC. CT and MRI also provide information about local extension and nodal and venous involvement. MRI provides further information about extension into the renal vein and vena cava and has replaced inferior vena cavography. Ultrasonography and IVU may show a mass but provide less information about the characteristics of the mass and extent of disease than do CT or MRI.

Often, nonmalignant and malignant masses can be distinguished radiographically, but sometimes surgery is needed for confirmation. Needle biopsy does not have sufficient sensitivity when findings are equivocal; it is recommended only when there is an infiltrative pattern instead of a discrete mass, when the renal mass may be a metastasis from another known cancer, or sometimes to confirm a diagnosis before chemotherapy for metastases.

Three-dimensional CT, CT angiography, or magnetic resonance angiography is used before surgery, particularly before nephron-sparing surgery, to define the nature of RCC, to more accurately determine the number of renal arteries present, and to delineate the vascular pattern. These imaging techniques have replaced aortography and selective renal artery angiography.

A chest x-ray and liver function tests are essential. If chest x-ray is abnormal, chest CT is done. If alkaline phosphatase is elevated, bone scanning is needed. Serum electrolytes, BUN, creatinine, and calcium are measured. BUN and creatinine are unaffected unless both kidneys are diseased.


Information from the evaluation makes preliminary staging possible. The TNM (tumor, node, metastasis) system has been recently refined to be precise (see Table: AJCC/TNM* Staging of Renal Cell Carcinoma and see Table: TNM Definitions for Renal Cell Carcinoma). At diagnosis, RCC is localized in 45%, locally invasive in about 33%, and spread to distant organs in 25%.

AJCC/TNM* Staging of Renal Cell Carcinoma



Regional Lymph Node Metastasis

Distant Metastasis










T1 or T2




N0 or N1




Any N


Any T

Any N


*For AJCC/TNM definitions, see Table: TNM Definitions for Bladder Cancer.

AJCC = American Joint Commission on Cancer; TNM = tumor, node, metastasis.

Adapted from Edge SB, Byrd DR, Compton CC, et al: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, 7th edition. New York, Springer, 2010.

TNM Definitions for Renal Cell Carcinoma



Primary tumor


≤ 7 cm in greatest dimension

Limited to kidney


≤ 4 cm in greatest dimension


> 4 cm but ≤ 7 cm in greatest dimension


≥ 7 cm in greatest dimension

Limited to kidney


>7 cm but ≤10 cm in greatest dimension


>10 cm in greatest dimension


Extends into major veins or invades perinephric tissues but not beyond Gerota fascia or into the adrenal gland


Extends into renal veins or its segmental branches or invades perirenal and/or renal sinus fat, but not beyond Gerota fascia


Grossly extends into the vena cava below the diaphragm


Grossly extends into vena cava above the diaphragm or invades the wall of the vena cava


Invades beyond Gerota fascia,including contiguous extension into the ipsilateral adrenal gland (non-contiguous extension into an adrenal gland is considered a metastasis)

Regional lymph node metastasis


Not assessable





Distant metastasis





AJCC = American Joint Commission on Cancer; TNM = tumor, node, metastasis.

Data from Edge SB, Byrd DR, Compton CC, et al: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, 7th edition. New York, Springer, 2010.


Five-year survival rates range from about 81% for the American Joint Commission on Cancer (AJCC) stage grouping I (T1 N0 M0) to 8% for stage grouping IV (T4 or M1). Prognosis is poor for patients with metastatic or recurrent RCC because treatments are usually ineffective for cure, although they may be useful for palliation.


  • For early RCC, surgical treatment

  • For advanced RCC, palliative therapies or experimental protocols

Curative treatments

Radical nephrectomy (removal of kidney, adrenal gland, perirenal fat, and Gerota fascia) is standard treatment for localized RCC and provides a reasonable chance for cure. Results with open or laparoscopic procedures are comparable; recovery is easier with laparoscopic procedures. Nephron-sparing surgery (partial nephrectomy) is possible and appropriate for many patients, even in patients with a normal contralateral kidney if the tumor is < 4 to 7 cm. Partial nephrectomy is gaining popularity because it results in a lower incidence of chronic kidney disease than radical nephrectomy. Nonsurgical destruction of renal tumors via freezing (cryosurgery) or thermal energy (radiofrequency ablation), often percutaneously, are not currently recommended as primary treatment. They are being done in highly selected patients, but long-term data about efficacy and indications are not yet available.

For tumors involving the renal vein and vena cava, surgery may be curative if no nodal or distant metastases exist.

If both kidneys are affected, partial nephrectomy of one or both kidneys is preferable to bilateral radical nephrectomy if technically feasible.

Radiation therapy is no longer combined with nephrectomy.

Adjuvant use of systemic therapy after surgery has failed to prolong survival in multiple clinical trials.

Palliative treatments

Palliation can include nephrectomy, tumor embolization, and possibly external beam radiation therapy. Resection of metastases offers palliation and, if metastases are limited in number, prolongs life in some patients, particularly those with a long interval between initial treatment (nephrectomy) and development of metastases. Although metastatic RCC is traditionally characterized as radioresistant, radiation therapy can be palliative when RCC is metastatic in bone.

For some patients, drug therapy reduces tumor size and prolongs life. About 10 to 20% of patients respond to interferon alfa-2b or IL-2, although the response is long-lasting in < 5%. Many targeted therapies have shown efficacy for advanced tumors: sunitinib, sorafenib, bevacizumab, pazopanib, cabozantinib, axitinib, and lenvatinib (tyrosine kinase inhibitors) and temsirolimus and everolimus, which inhibit the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR).

The newest available systemic therapy for metastatic RCC that has progressed on targeted therapy is nivolumab. Nivolumab is a monoclonal antibody against PD-1 that works by blocking the PD-1/PD-L1 interaction between tumor cells and infiltrating T-cells, thus blocking PD-1 pathway-mediated inhibition of the immune response, including the antitumor immune response. Nivolumab was shown to prolong overall survival by 5.4 mo (25.0 vs 19.6 mo; p < 0.002) when compared to everolimus in patients with advanced RCC who had been treated with one or more tyrosine kinase inhibitors (1). Combination nivolumab/ipilimumab has recently been shown to have a superior overall survival compared to sunitinib in patients with previously untreated intermediate and poor risk metastatic RCC. Final analysis of this trial is pending publication but it is expected to change the standard of care (2).

Other treatments are experimental. They include stem cell transplantation, other interleukins, anti-angiogenesis therapy (eg, thalidomide), and vaccine therapy. Traditional chemotherapeutic drugs, alone or combined, and progestins are ineffective.

Cytoreductive nephrectomy before systemic therapy, or as a delayed surgical procedure to remove the primary tumor after response in the metastases, is commonly done in patients healthy enough to undergo it.

Increased knowledge of genetic subtypes of RCC is leading to evolving management recommendations that are more specific.

Treatment references

Key Points

  • RCC, an adenocarcinoma, accounts for 90 to 95% of primary malignant renal tumors.

  • Symptoms (most often gross or microscopic hematuria) usually do not develop until the tumor is large or metastatic, so incidental discovery is common.

  • Diagnose RCC by MRI or contrast-enhanced CT and do a chest x-ray and liver function tests.

  • Treat most localized RCC by radical nephrectomy.

  • Treat advanced RCC with palliative surgery, radiation therapy, targeted drug therapies, and/or interferon alfa-2b or IL-2.

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