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Renal cell carcinoma

Renal cell carcinoma, also known by the eponym Grawitz tumor, is the most common form of kidney cancer arising from the renal tubule. It is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults. Initial therapy is with surgery. It is notoriously resistant to radiation therapy and chemotherapy, although some cases respond to immunotherapy.


Signs and symptoms

The classic triad is hematuria (blood in the urine), flank pain and an abdominal mass. This "classic triad" is infrequently present when the patient first presents for medical attention.

Other signs may include:

  • Abnormal urine color (dark, rusty, or brown) due to blood in the urine
  • Weight loss of more than 5% of body weight with emaciated, thin, malnourished appearance
  • More and more frequently, renal cell carcinoma is identified as an incidental findinging on a medical imaging study of the abdomen (e.g. computed tomography a.k.a. CT) done for an unrelated purpose
  • The presenting symptom may be due to to metastatic disease, such as a pathologic fracture of the hip due to a metastasis to the bone
  • Enlargement of one testicle (usually the left, due to blockage of the left gonadal vein by tumor invasion of the left renal vein -- the right gonadal vein drains directly into the inferior vena cava)
  • Paraneoplastic phenomena (not directly due to the mass, but due to secreted substances with hormonal activity):
  • High blood pressure


Renal cell carcinoma affects about three in 10,000 people, resulting in about 31,000 new cases in the US per year. Every year, about 12,000 people in the US die from renal cell carcinoma. It is more common in men than women, usually affecting men older than 55.

Why the cells become cancerous is not known. A history of smoking greatly increases the risk for developing renal cell carcinoma. Some people may also have inherited an increased risk to develop renal cell carcinoma, and a family history of kidney cancer increases the risk.

People with von Hippel-Lindau disease, a hereditary disease that also affects the capillaries of the brain, commonly also develop renal cell carcinoma. Kidney disorders that require dialysis for treatment also increase the risk for developing renal cell carcinoma.


Gross examination shows a hypervascular lesion in the renal cortex, which is frequent multilobulated, yellow (because of the lipid accumulation) and calcified.

Light microscopy shows tumor cells forming cords, papillae, tubules or nests, and are atypical, polygonal and large. Because these cells accumulate glycogen and lipids, their cytoplasm appear "clear", lipid-laden, the nuclei remain in the middle of the cells, and the cellular membrane is evident. Some cells may be smaller, with eosinophilic cytoplasm, resembling normal tubular cells. The stroma is reduced, but well vascularized. The tumor grows in large front, compressing the surrounding parenchyma, producing a pseudocapsule.[1]

Secretion of vasoactive substances (e.g. renin) may cause arterial hypertension, and release of erythropoietin may cause polycythemia (increased production of red blood cells).


The characteristic appearance of renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is a solid renal lesion which disturbs the renal contour. It will frequently have an irregular or lobulated margin. 85% of solid renal masses will be RCC. 10% of RCC will contain calcifications, and some contain macroscopic fat (likely due to invasion and encasement of the perirenal fat). Following intravenous contrast administration (computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging), enhancement will be noted, and will increase the conspicuity of the tumor relative to normal renal parenchyma.

A list of solid renal lesions includes:

  • renal cell carcinoma
  • metastasis from an extra-renal primary neoplasm
  • renal lymphoma
  • oncocytoma

In particular, reliably distinguishing renal cell carcinoma from an oncocytoma (a benign lesion) is not possible using current medical imaging or percutaneous biopsy.

Renal cell carcinoma may also be cystic. As there are several benign cystic renal lesions (simple renal cyst, hemorrhagic renal cyst, multilocular cystic nephroma, polycystic kidney disease), it may occasionally be difficult for the radiologist to differentiate a benign cystic lesion from a malignant one. A famous radiologist named Dr. Morton Bosniak developed a classification system for cystic renal lesions that classifies them based specific imaging features into groups that are benign and those that need surgical resection.

At diagnosis, 30% of renal cell carcinoma has spread to that kidney's renal vein, and 5-10% has continued on into the inferior vena cava (Oto, Herts, Remer, Novick Inferior Vena Cava Tumor Thrombus in Renal Cell Carcinoma: Staging by MR Imaging and Impact on Surgical Treatment American Journal of Radiology 1998:171:1619-1624)

Percutaneous biopsy can be performed by a radiologist using ultrasound or computed tomography to guide sampling of the tumor for the purpose of diagnosis. However this is not routinely performed because when the typical imaging features of renal cell carcinoma are present, the possibility of an incorrectly negative result together with the risk of a medical complication to the patient make it unfavorable from a risk-benefit perspective.


Surgical removal of all or part of the kidney (nephrectomy) is recommended. This may include removal of the adrenal gland, retroperitoneal lymph nodes, and possibly tissues involved by direct extension (invasion) of the tumor into the surrounding tissues. In cases where the tumor has spread into the renal vein, inferior vena cava, and possibly the right atrium (angioinvasion), this portion of the tumor can be surgically removed, as well. Surgical resection is usually not offered to patients with distant metastases (such as to the bones, lungs, or brain).

Noninvasive, image-guided therapies, usually managed by radiologists, are being offered to patients with localized tumor, but who are not good candidates for a surgical procedure. This sort of procedure involves placing a probe through the skin and into the tumor using real-time imaging of both the probe tip and the tumor by computed tomography, ultrasound, or even magnetic resonance imaging guidance, and then destroying the tumor with heat (radiofrequency ablation) or cold (cryotherapy). These modalities are at a disadvantage compared to traditional surgery in that pathologic confirmation of complete tumor destruction is not possible.

Radiation therapy is not commonly used for treatment of renal cell carcinoma because it is usually not successful. Radiation therapy may be used to palliate the symptoms of skeletal metastases. Hormone treatments may reduce the growth of the tumor in some cases.

Medications such as alpha-interferon and interleukin-2 (IL-2) have been successful in reducing the growth of some renal cell carcinomas, including some with metastasis. IL-2 (Proleukin®) is presently the only therapy FDA-approved for the treatment of metastatic renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer). Studies have demonstrated that IL-2 offers the possibility of a complete and long-lasting remission in these diseases.

Chemotherapy may be used in some cases, but cure is unlikely unless all the cancer can be removed with surgery.


The outcome varies depending on the amount of metastasis. The five-year survival rate is around 60 percent to 75 percent if the tumor is in the early stages and has not spread outside the kidney. If it has metastasized to the lymph nodes, the 5-year survival is around 5 percent to 15 percent. If it has spread to other organs, the 5-year survival at less than 5 percent.

Complications are arterial hypertension and the inevitable metastasis (spread) of the cancer

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Last updated: 08-31-2005 00:54:27