A to Z Health Guide

Kidney Cancer: Treatment

The most common treatment for kidney cancer is with surgery to remove all or part of the kidney.  However, your treatment will depend on the stage of your disease, your general health, your age, and other factors.  Some forms of treatment include:

Surgery.  Removing all or part of the kidney with surgery is called a nephrectomy.  It is the most common treatment for kidney cancer.  Most people with early kidney cancer (stages I, II, and II) can be cured with surgery. There are two basic types of nephrectomies for kidney cancer:

  • Partial Nephrectomy: In this procedure, the surgeon removes just the tumor or part of the kidney that has the tumor.  The kidney is preserved.

  • Radical Nephrectomy:  In this procedure, the surgeon removes the complete kidney.  If needed, the surrounding tissues and lymph nodes may also be removed.  Most people can live a healthy, normal life with one kidney.

Thermal ablation.   This is a treatment that kills the tumor by burning or freezing it.  The most common types of thermal ablation are radiofrequency ablation (burning) or cryoablation (freezing). It is used mostly in people with small tumors who are not good candidates for surgery.

Active surveillance.  In some cases, a small tumor (less than 4 centimeters) can be closely watched to see if it grows.  This is called "active surveillance."  Many small tumors grow slowly and not all kidney tumors require surgery.  Some actually behave like non-cancerous tumors.  This may be a good option if you are elderly, frail, or have multiple health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  It is rarely recommended for people who are healthy and young.  You will need careful monitoring with regular imaging and laboratory work.  Be sure to consult an experienced kidney cancer specialist, usually a urologist.

Medical treatment.  For people with advanced kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, treatment with a drug may be recommended along with surgery, or instead of surgery.  Some of these drugs are given to you as a pill that you take by mouth; others are given as an injection.  Much progress has been made in recent years, and people with advanced kidney cancer are living much longer than ten years ago.  The types of drugs that are most often used for advanced kidney cancer are:

  • Immunotherapy.  This is a form of treatment that uses the body's own natural ability (immune system) to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells.  Unfortunately, many of these drugs have serious side effects.

  • Anti-angiogenic therapies.  This is a class of medicines that reduce the blood supply to the tumor, slowing or stopping growth of the tumor.

  • Targeted therapies.  This is a class of medicines that directly inhibit the growth of the cancer. Targeted therapies cannot cure advanced cancer but they may allow you to live longer and have fewer symptoms.

  • Checkpoint inhibitors.  This new class of drugs works with the body's immune system to identify and kill cancer cells.

What about traditional chemotherapy and radiation?

Traditional chemotherapy and radiation have not been shown to do a good job of treating most forms of kidney cancer.

How do I know which treatment is best for my stage of cancer?

You should discuss all your treatment options with your medical team.  Your medical team may include:
  • A urologist (specialist in diseases of the urinary system)
  • Oncologist (cancer specialist)
  • A radiation oncologist (specialist in treating cancer with radiation)
  • A nephrologist (kidney doctor)
  • An oncology nurse, social worker, and other healthcare professionals

Nutrition during cancer treatment

It is important to eat well for good nutrition during cancer treatment. Good nutrition means getting enough calories and nutrients to help prevent weight loss and regain strength. Patients who eat well often feel better and have more energy.

Some people find it hard to eat well during treatment. This is because their treatment may cause them to lose their appetite or have side effects like nausea, vomiting or mouth sores, which can make eating difficult. For some people, food tastes different. Others may not feel like eating because they feel uncomfortable or tired.

See also:

What is Kidney Cancer?

Who is at Risk?

How is Kidney Cancer Found?

Talking with Your Healthcare Professional

Date Reviewed: 
November 17, 2016

The information shared on our websites is information developed solely from internal experts on the subject matter, including medical advisory boards, who have developed guidelines for our patient content. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.