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Kidney Cancer

Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Kidney Cancer Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center is a national hub for treatment and research. Our physicians are international experts in urology, medical oncology, radiation oncology, genetics, and pathology, working together to improve the lives of patients with kidney cancer. 

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas, we deliver the best cancer care available today and push to discover new treatments. NCI designation means we offer patients the ability to participate in the broadest possible range of clinical trials, with access to potential therapies not available at other facilities.

Advanced Care, Exceptional Outcomes

Kidney cancer – also known as renal cancer – develops in the kidneys, the pair of organs in the abdomen that filter waste products, salt, and excess water from the blood, which enters the kidneys from the renal arteries. 

Kidney cancer is one of the 10 most prevalent cancer types among men and women. The disease can affect anyone, though most patients are diagnosed in their 60s or 70s. For reasons we don’t yet understand, kidney cancer is particularly prevalent in Texas. 

UT Southwestern’s kidney cancer team delivers advanced, evidence-based care to people who have kidney cancer. We continually develop new treatment approaches, and our survival rates for stage IV patients are double the national benchmarks.  

Our dedicated program is one of only several of its kind in the nation. We are one of just two institutions in the U.S. to receive a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) award from the National Cancer Institute for kidney cancer. 

Causes and Symptoms

It’s unclear exactly what causes kidney cancer, but possible risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Male gender
  • Older age
  • Advanced kidney disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Genetic conditions that can lead to familial renal cancer 

Early-stage kidney cancer doesn’t always exhibit symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they can include:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Non-injury-related pain in one side of the lower back
  • A lump on the lower back or side
  • Unexplained fatigue or weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Prolonged and unexplained fever 

Diagnosis of Kidney Cancer

A patient’s symptoms – along with a medical history, physical exam, urinalysis, blood work, or imaging for another reason – can suggest kidney cancer. 

UT Southwestern’s experienced physicians diagnose the disease using advanced imaging techniques that include:

Our specialists are also improving methods of noninvasively diagnosing and monitoring tumors through advanced MRI approaches. 

Treatment for Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer treatment depends on tumor size, cancer stage, overall health, and preferences. Our physicians always opt for the most effective and least invasive treatments from our wide range of options. Learn more about our treatment options. 

Active Monitoring

About 80 percent of kidney cancers are detected by chance during testing for another health problem, such as a CT scan for abdominal pain. These tumors are often so small that they don’t require immediate treatment – 30 percent of small kidney tumors never grow, and when they do, it’s typically no more than one-tenth of an inch per year. 

To avoid unnecessary surgery or radiation, patients can participate in our active monitoring program. Every six months, patients come in for abdominal imaging to look for changes in the size, shape, or composition of the tumor. Learn more about how we treat small kidney tumors. 

Kidney Cancer Surgery

Larger tumors usually need to be surgically removed. When it’s safe, we use robotic surgery because of its many benefits over traditional surgery, which include:

  • Smaller, keyhole incisions
  • Less pain and scarring
  • Shorter recovery time
  • Ability to save more of the kidney 

Our kidney cancer robotic surgery program is the largest in North Texas. We perform 250 to 300 nephrectomies or partial nephrectomies per year, which places us among the highest-volume kidney cancer programs in the region. Larger volumes mean more experience and lower complication rates. Learn more about how we treat large kidney tumors. 

Radiation Therapy

Because surgery is not an option for everyone, in some patients we can use stereotactic ablative radiation (SABR) to target and kill cancer cells. Kidney cancer is proven to respond much better to SABR than to traditional radiation therapy. Vast experience with radiation ensures that our patients get the best treatment with low complication rates.  

We’re actively researching new ways to combine SABR with other treatment approaches. One such development is I-SABR, a combination of SABR and immunotherapy. This approach uses radiation as a vaccine – SABR treatment of one metastasis leads to killing the cancer cells and releasing their contents so the immune system becomes better able to recognize cancer cells throughout the body. Learn more about stereotactic radiation and our I-SABR research.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy involves resetting the immune system to attack and kill cancer cells, in much the same way as it already recognizes bacteria or viruses. Building on Nobel-prize winning immunology research, our program is developing new approaches to treat kidney cancer using immunotherapy. 

Immunotherapy is the most promising treatment strategy to achieve a cure in patients with kidney cancer that has spread. Current immunotherapy strategies block signals from the tumor that “turn off” the immune cells. Learn more about kidney cancer and immunotherapy.  

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials offer patients with kidney cancer the newest, most promising treatment strategies while simultaneously helping advance the field to develop better treatments for the future. Patients should speak with their doctor to determine if a clinical trial is an option. 

Support Services

UT Southwestern offers a range of comprehensive support services to patients and families who have or have had kidney cancer. We want to help patients and their families through treatment, which is often a very confusing time in their lives. We have specialists in cancer psychology, oncology nutrition, social work, transitional care coordination, spiritual support, and integrative therapy.

Related Conditions and Treatments

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We have a wide range of clinical trials open to patients with all stages of cancer. Search for opportunities to participate in a cancer study.

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