Kidney Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2020

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing kidney cancer and what people can do to lower their risk. Use the menu to see other pages.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing kidney cancer:

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco doubles the risk of developing kidney cancer. It is believed to cause about 30% of kidney cancers in men and about 25% in women.

  • Gender. Men are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop kidney cancer than women.

  • Race. Black people have higher rates of kidney cancer.

  • Age. Kidney cancer is typically found in adults and is usually diagnosed between the ages of 50 and 70.

  • Nutrition and weight. Research has often shown a link between kidney cancer and obesity.

  • High blood pressure. Men with high blood pressure, also called hypertension, may be more likely to develop kidney cancer.

  • Overuse of certain medications. Painkillers containing phenacetin have been banned in the United States since 1983 because of their link to transitional cell carcinoma. Diuretics and analgesic pain pills, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, have also been linked to kidney cancer.

  • Exposure to cadmium. Some studies have shown a connection between exposure to the metallic element cadmium and kidney cancer. Working with batteries, paints, or welding materials may increase a person’s risk as well. This risk is even higher for smokers who have been exposed to cadmium.

  • Chronic kidney disease. People who have decreased kidney function but don’t yet need dialysis may be at higher risk for the development of kidney cancer.

  • Long-term dialysis. People who have been on dialysis for a long time may develop cancerous cysts in their kidneys. These growths are usually found early and can often be removed before the cancer spreads.

  • Family history of kidney cancer. People who have a strong family history of kidney cancer may have an increased risk of developing the disease. This can include individuals with first-degree relatives, such as a parent, brother, sister, or child. Risk also increases if other extended family members have also been diagnosed with kidney cancer, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and cousins. Specific factors in family members may increase the risk of a hereditary kidney cancer disorder, including diagnosis at an early age, rare types of kidney cancer, cancer in both kidneys (bilaterality), more than 1 tumor in the same kidney (multifocality), and other types of benign or malignant tumors.

    If you are concerned kidney cancer may run in your family, it is important to get an accurate family history and to share the results with your doctor. By understanding your family history, you and your doctor can take steps to reduce your risk and be proactive about your health.

Genetic conditions and kidney cancer

Although kidney cancer can run in families, inherited kidney cancers linked to a single, inherited gene are uncommon, accounting for 5% or less of kidney cancers. Over a dozen unique genes that increase the risk of developing kidney cancer have been found, and many are linked to specific genetic syndromes. Most of these conditions are associated with a specific type of kidney cancer (see the Introduction).

Finding a specific genetic syndrome in a family can help a person and their doctor develop an appropriate cancer screening plan and, in some cases, help determine the best treatment options. Only genetic testing can determine whether a person has a genetic mutation. Most experts strongly recommend that people considering genetic testing first talk with someone with expertise in cancer genetics, such as a genetic counselor, who can explain the risks and benefits of genetic testing.

Genetic conditions that increase a person's risk of developing kidney cancer include:

  • Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome. People with VHL syndrome have an increased risk of developing several types of tumors. Up to 60% of people with this disorder develop clear cell kidney cancer.

  • Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma (HPRCC). HPRCC is a very rare genetic condition that increases the risk of type 1 papillary renal cell carcinoma. People who have HPRCC have a very high risk of developing more than 1 kidney tumor on both kidneys, but no increased risk for other cancers or conditions.

  • Birt-Hogg-Dubé (BHD) syndrome. BHD syndrome is a rare genetic condition associated with multiple noncancerous skin tumors, lung cysts, and an increased risk of noncancerous and cancerous kidney tumors. Tumors are most often chromophobe, oncocytoma, or a mixture of both, which are called hybrid tumors.

  • Hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell carcinoma (HLRCC). HLRCC is associated with an increased risk of about 16% of developing a form of kidney cancer that resembles type 2 papillary or collecting duct renal cell carcinoma. Skin nodules called leiomyomata are often found, mainly on the arms, legs, chest, and back. Women with HLRCC often develop uterine fibroids known as leiomyomas. Rarely, adrenal tumors can form. 

  • Tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) syndrome. TSC syndrome is a genetic condition associated with changes in the skin, brain, kidney, and heart. More than half of individuals with TSC develop angiomyolipomas of the kidney. About 2% of those individuals will develop kidney cancer (see the Introduction).

  • Succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) complex syndrome. SDH is a related group of hereditary cancer syndromes associated with tumors called pheochromocytoma and paraganglioma. Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) and kidney cancers may also be seen that are related to this syndrome.

  • BAP1 tumor predisposition syndrome (BAP1 TPS). An inherited mutation in the BRCA1-associated protein 1 (BAP1) gene is associated with melanoma of the skin and of the eye, mesothelioma, and clear cell RCC.

Other genetic conditions may be associated with an increased risk of kidney cancer. Research to find other genetic causes of kidney cancer is ongoing.

Prevention

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause kidney cancer, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent kidney cancer, you may be able to lower your risk by:

  • Quitting smoking

  • Lowering blood pressure

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in fat

Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

The next section in this guide is Screening. It explains how tests may find cancer before signs or symptoms appear. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.