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Risks and causes of kidney cancer

Men and women discussing kidney cancer

This page is about the risks and causes of kidney cancer. Doctors and scientists don't know exactly what causes kidney cancer but some things do increase the risk. There is information below about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Risks and causes of kidney cancer

Around 3 out of 4 people (75%) diagnosed with kidney cancer are aged 60 or older. It is rare in people under 50. It affects more men than women. This could be because in the past more men smoked cigarettes.

There are some kidney cancer risk factors we know about. These are

  • Being very overweight (obese)
  • Smoking – if you smoke your risk could be double that of a non smoker
  • Having kidney disease that needs dialysis
  • Faulty genes – some people inherit a tendency to develop kidney cancer (hereditary or familial kidney cancer)
  • Having a relative with kidney cancer
  • High blood pressure
  • Hepatitis C infection
  • Having had thyroid cancer
  • Radiotherapy treatment for testicular cancer or cancer of the neck of the womb (cervix)

Other risk factors that have been investigated and may increase risk are removal of the womb (hysterectomy) and the heavy use of mild painkillers such ibuprofen.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About kidney cancer section.

 

 

How common kidney cancer is

Just over 10,100 kidney cancers are diagnosed in the UK each year. It is the 8th most common cancer diagnosed in the UK overall (excluding non melanoma skin cancer). Around 3 out of 4 people diagnosed (75%) are aged 60 or older. Kidney cancer is rare in people under 50. 

Kidney cancer is diagnosed more often in men than women. This could be because in the past more men smoked cigarettes. Smoking increases your risk of getting kidney cancer.

 

Body weight and height

Being very overweight (obese) increases the risk of getting kidney cancer. A Cancer Research UK study published in 2011 found that being overweight or obese causes around a quarter of kidney cancers (25% in men and 22% in women). Obese means that your body mass index is 30 or higher. Or more roughly, it means that your weight is at least 25% higher than the top of the healthy range for your height. Body mass index (BMI) is worked out by comparing your height and weight. 

Being overweight causes changes in hormones in the body, particularly for women. It could be this change in the body’s hormone balance that increases the risk of kidney cancer.

There is information about the right weight for you on this website. And you can find information about healthy eating on our news and resources website.

An overview of studies in Scandinavian countries showed that taller men have a higher risk of renal cell carcinoma of the kidney. This Scandinavian review did not show an increased risk in women. But a large UK study has shown that taller women may be at a higher risk of developing kidney cancer than shorter women. So the research is unclear in this area at the moment.

 

Smoking

If you smoke, your risk of getting kidney cancer goes up. On average, smokers have a 50% increase in risk. But the risk increases with the number of cigarettes that you smoke. People who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day can have up to double the risk of the most common type of kidney cancer (renal cell cancer) compared to non smokers. Smokers also have up to 3 times the risk of developing cancer of the central area of the kidney (the renal pelvis) compared to non smokers. But your risk falls if you stop smoking and after 10 years is the same as a non smoker.

 

Kidney disease

People with kidney failure have to have their blood filtered by a machine about twice a week. This is called dialysis. People having long term kidney dialysis have an increased risk of developing kidney cysts and this increases the risk of kidney cancer. The longer you have dialysis, the greater your risk of kidney cancer. But this is probably because you needed dialysis due to kidney disease. The dialysis itself is not directly related to the cancer risk.

 

Faulty genes and inherited conditions

A small number of people inherit faulty genes that increase their risk of developing kidney cancer and other medical conditions. Changes in the DNA that makes up the faulty gene make the gene behave in an abnormal way. Cancers caused by these faulty genes are called  hereditary or familial kidney cancer. Scientists are finding out which genes carry these mistakes in the DNA. In the future this could help doctors predict who is at risk of getting hereditary kidney cancer.

People with kidney cancer who have these genetic conditions often have cancer in both kidneys (bilateral kidney cancer). They may also have several tumours in each kidney. They often develop the cancer at a younger age than people with non inherited cancers. For more information about these rare types of kidney cancer, contact the relevant organisations on the kidney cancer organisations page.

The inherited conditions that increase the risk of kidney cancer include

Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome

Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome is an inherited cancer syndrome. The VHL gene runs through affected families. People who carry the gene have an increased risk of developing several quite rare cancers in the brain, spine, pancreas, eyes and inner ear. About 40% of people with vHL get kidney cancer.

Tuberous sclerosis

Tuberous sclerosis (TS) is another condition caused by a faulty gene. About 1 in 3 cases are inherited. But the other 2 out of 3 occur because the gene has changed (mutated) in those people for the first time. It can cause skin, brain and heart problems, as well as kidney disease. People with TS have an increased risk of kidney cysts and kidney cancer.

Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome

Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome is another inherited condition. It causes many non cancerous (benign) tumours to develop in the hair follicles of the skin. These usually develop on the face, neck and trunk. People who carry this gene have an increased risk of kidney cancer.

Hereditary clear cell and papillary renal cell cancer

Hereditary clear cell kidney cancer and hereditary papillary kidney cancers are both caused by inherited faulty genes. They are dominant genetic conditions. This means that you only have to inherit the faulty gene from one parent. Even so, they are both very rare.

 

Family history

Studies have shown that people with a first degree relative diagnosed with kidney cancer have roughly double the risk of developing renal cell carcinoma themselves. A first degree relative is a parent, brother or sister, or your child.

 

High blood pressure

Some research studies have found a link between high blood pressure or high blood pressure medicines and kidney cancer. It is more likely that high blood pressure is the link, rather than the medicines. High blood pressure is a known risk factor for kidney disease in general.

 

Alcohol

The risk of kidney cancer is slightly lower in people who drink alcohol compared to non drinkers. But alcohol increases the risk of several other types of cancer.

 

Thyroid cancer

People who have had thyroid cancer have a risk of kidney cancer that is 2 to 7 times higher than people who have not had thyroid cancer. It may be due to gene changes that are common to both cancers.

 

Radiotherapy for cancer

Men treated with radiotherapy for testicular cancer have double the risk of kidney cancer compared to men in the general population. But the risk is still small. The risk after radiotherapy for testicular cancer gradually rises and after 30 years is increased by almost three times. 

Women who have had radiotherapy for cancer of the neck of the womb (cervical cancer) have their risk of kidney cancer increased by almost a third. After 30 years the risk is almost double compared to that of women in the general population.

 

Hysterectomy

There is limited evidence that removal of the womb (hysterectomy) may increase the risk of kidney cancer.

 

Mild painkillers

Some mild painkilling drugs have been linked to increased kidney cancer risk. One drug that could definitely increase the risk was phenacetin, but this has been taken off the market in the UK. Some other types of painkillers called non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may increase the risk of kidney cancer slightly, including ibuprofen (Nurofen). It is unlikely that occasional use or low dose use would be harmful.

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Updated: 14 January 2014