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Types of surgery for kidney cancer

Men and women discussing kidney cancer

This page tells you about the different operations used to treat kidney cancer. Surgery can be used to treat almost any stage of kidney cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Surgery for kidney cancer

Surgery can remove a cancer that is only in the kidney (early kidney cancer) or that has spread into nearby tissues (locally advanced kidney cancer). In these situations the surgery aims to cure the cancer. Surgery can also be used to remove cancers that have spread to other parts of the body (secondary cancers) to control the growth of the cancer and relieve symptoms.

Curing kidney cancer that has not spread

To do this, it must be possible to remove the cancer completely. Stage 1 and 2 cancers are completely contained within the kidney and are most likely to be curable with surgery. Stage 3 cancers have spread into nearby lymph nodes or through the outer covering of the kidney. It is sometimes possible to cure them with surgery if the surgeon can remove all of the cancer. Removing the kidney is called nephrectomy. 

  • In radical nephrectomy the surgeon removes the whole kidney with the tissues around it, including the adrenal gland and lymph nodes
  • Partial nephrectomy means removing the cancer and part of the kidney around it – it is called nephron sparing surgery

You may be able to have these operations as keyhole surgery.

After surgery

If your surgeon is satisfied that all the cancer has been removed, you won't need any further treatment. If the surgeon is concerned that some cancer cells may have been left behind, you may have biological therapy as part of a trial. You may be offered a course of radiotherapy but this is not common.

Relieving symptoms or removing cancer spread

Even if your cancer is unlikely to be cured with surgery, it may still be worth having an operation to remove the kidney to relieve symptoms. It is also sometimes possible to remove cancer that has spread. This is very specialist surgery and the type of operation will depend on which part of the body the cancer has spread to.

Blocking the blood supply to the tumour

If you are not well enough for surgery and the tumour is causing symptoms such as bleeding or pain, your doctor may suggest arterial embolisation. They inject pieces of gelatine sponge or small plastic beads into the blood vessels going to the part of the kidney containing the cancer. This won't cure the cancer but can shrink it and reduce symptoms for some time.


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

 

 

Surgery for kidney cancer

Surgery can remove a cancer that is only in the kidney (early kidney cancer) or that has spread into nearby tissues (locally advanced kidney cancer). In these situations the surgery aims to cure the cancer. 

Surgery can also be used to remove cancers that have spread to other parts of the body (secondary cancers), to control the growth of the cancer and relieve symptoms.

 

Curing cancer that has not spread

To do this, it must be possible to remove the cancer completely. Stage 1 and 2 kidney cancers are contained within the kidney and are most likely to be curable with surgery. Stage 3 cancers have spread into a nearby lymph node, the adrenal gland or the vein leading to the kidney. It is sometimes possible to cure them with surgery if the surgeon can get all of the cancer out. 

Depending on the stage of the cancer the surgeon may remove part of the kidney, this is called a partial nephrectomy. If they remove the kidney as well as the nearby lymph nodes and the adrenal gland the operation is called a radical nephrectomy.

Partial nephrectomy

This operation is commonly used for small kidney cancers that have not spread. The surgeon removes the part of the kidney containing the cancer. Some of the kidney is left behind. Doctors call this nephron sparing surgery. The nephron is the filtering unit of the kidney, so you have some working kidney left after the operation.

Diagram showing before and after a partial nephrectomy

This type of surgery used to be rare. But many kidney cancers are being found at an early stage, by accident, when you have a scan for something else. This type of treatment is often appropriate for them. If at all possible, removing part of the kidney is used for anyone with a stage 1 kidney cancer (less than 7cm across). In some people, it may not be possible to have this type of surgery, even with a small tumour, because of its position within the kidney. If you are at all worried about this, talk it through with your surgeon.

Radical nephrectomy

The surgeon removes the whole kidney with the tissues around it, including the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland is attached to the kidney. The surgeon also removes some lymph nodes in the area. The surgery is fairly major but if your cancer has not spread, this is all the treatment you will need.

Diagram showing before and after a radical nephrectomy

For detailed information about what will happen in hospital when you have these operations, look at the section about having your operation.

If you can't have surgery

If you have a very small kidney tumour and are not well enough for surgery, your specialist may offer you treatment to destroy the cancer by freezing it. They call this cryotherapy. There is a page about cryotherapy for kidney cancer

Another treatment that can destroy the cancer cells is radio wave treatment (radiofrequency ablation). We have a page about radio wave treatment for kidney cancer.

 

Keyhole and robotic surgery

Surgeons can sometimes remove the kidney using small cuts in the abdomen instead of making one large cut. This is called keyhole surgery. They may use laparascopic surgery or robotic surgery. These techniques can have different risks and benefits to standard open surgery techniques.

Laparoscopic surgery 

Keyhole surgery is also called minimal access surgery or laparoscopic surgery. It means having an operation without needing a major incision (wound site). The surgeon uses an instrument a bit like a telescope. This is called a laparoscope. It has a light at one end and a camera at the other so that the surgeon can see inside the body. 

The surgeon usually makes a number of small cuts through your skin. They can put the laparoscope and other small instruments through these to carry out the surgery. So you will end up with 3 or 4 small wounds, each a centimetre or so long. The surgeon can control the instruments and watch what they are doing on the camera. It is possible to remove a whole kidney or part of a kidney using laparoscopic surgery. 

Diagram showing laparoscopic surgery for kidney cancer

Robotic surgery

Robot assisted surgery is a type of keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery. It is also called da Vinci surgery. A surgeon does the surgery through small cuts in the abdomen and uses a special machine (robot) to help. In the UK this type of surgery is mainly available at specialist cancer hospitals. 

During the surgery a robotic machine is beside you. The machine has 4 arms. One holds the camera and the others hold the surgical instruments. The surgeon makes small cuts in your abdomen. The camera and instruments are put in through the cuts to do the surgery. The surgeon then carries out the surgery using a machine to control the robotic arms. The surgeon has a 3D view of the operating area that they can magnify up to 10 to 12 times.

Benefits and risks of keyhole surgery

The advantages of keyhole surgery compared to open surgery are

  • You are likely to be more comfortable and need less painkilling medicines after your operation
  • You can usually go home from hospital more quickly
  • You usually recover from the operation more quickly

There are drawbacks. The operation may take longer, so you may be under anaesthetic for longer. In some of these operations, the surgeon has to switch to regular, open surgery during the procedure. This could be because the position or size of the tumour makes it difficult to reach, or because there is difficulty controlling bleeding, for example.

If you are interested in having this type of surgery, talk to your surgeon. You may need a referral to a specialist urological surgeon with experience in laparoscopic kidney surgery.

 

Treatment after surgery

If your surgeon is satisfied that all the cancer has been removed, you won't need any further treatment. If they are concerned that some cancer cells may have been left behind, your specialist will discuss further treatment with you. They may recommend biological therapy treatment as part of a trial. 

Your specialist may recommend a course of radiotherapy but this is not common.

Although many treatments have been tested in research trials, at the moment there is no treatment that can reduce the chance of kidney cancer coming back after surgery. Currently trials are being carried out to see if biological therapies can do this. You can find out about biological therapy trials for kidney cancer on our clinical trials database.

 

Relieving symptoms

Even if your cancer is unlikely to be cured with surgery, it may still be worth you having an operation to remove it. Your doctor might call this a palliative nephrectomy. Sometimes the primary cancer causes troublesome symptoms that can be successfully treated by removing the kidney. The kidney tumour may be causing you pain, or causing blood in your urine. Or you may have general symptoms such as high temperatures (fevers) or weakness. 

The tumour can change the levels of chemicals in your blood, which can cause symptoms such as sickness or drowsiness. In kidney cancer, the tumour may release chemicals called cytokines that can cause these symptoms. Removing the tumour can reduce or get rid of these symptoms.

Removing the cancerous kidney may also slow down the progress of the cancer outside the kidney. Two recent clinical trials have shown that patients who have advanced kidney cancer may live longer if they have the affected kidney removed. 

You can discuss whether surgery is possible for you with your specialist. 

 

Removing cancer spread

Removing cancer that has spread (secondary cancer) is very specialist surgery. It is becoming more common, as it is possible to slow down the growth of the cancer. This might help you to live longer and have a better quality of life. 

In some cases, it may be possible to cure a cancer by removing a single area of cancer spread. It is possible to have secondary kidney cancer removed from your

  • Lung
  • Liver
  • Bone (in rare circumstances)
  • Brain
  • Skin

Your specialist will discuss your individual situation and whether you are fit and well enough to have an operation. 

We have a section on secondary cancers that has detailed information on these areas of cancer spread.

The operations to remove a secondary cancer are all very different from each other. And they vary depending on your particular medical situation. So it is not possible for us to give full details of these operations here. 

We have general information about what happens when you have surgery. You may find it helpful even though you are having a different type of operation.

 

Blocking the blood supply to the tumour

It is sometimes possible to block off the blood supply to the tumour. This is called arterial embolisation. Arterial embolisation is a minor operation done in the X-ray department. You stay in hospital at least overnight, so are admitted to a ward. 

You might have this treatment if you have an early stage kidney cancer but are not well enough to have part, or all of the kidney removed. This is not a cure because the cancer is not removed. There is a chance of cells breaking away in the future and spreading to other parts of the body.

Having arterial embolisation

You will be given a medicine to make you sleepy. The doctor puts local anaesthetic on the area of skin at the top of your leg (groin). A thin plastic tube (catheter) is then put into a blood vessel in your groin. Using X-ray pictures as a guide, the doctor threads the catheter upwards until it reaches the artery that carries blood to the kidney. A special substance is then injected through the catheter into the artery. This blocks the blood supply to the kidney, cutting off oxygen and nutrients to the cancer, and may make it shrink. 

They then remove the catheter. You will have a tight dressing put on to the small wound site in your groin and will be taken back to the ward to rest. 

After embolisation

You will need to rest for at least 4 hours. You may have some pain for a day or two following this treatment and your doctor or nurse will give you painkillers. You may also have side effects caused by the breakdown of the kidney cancer cells. The cells can release toxins that can cause a high temperature (fever), sweats, weakness, and lack of energy for a few days. If you find this troublesome, try taking paracetamol every 6 hours until the side effects improve.

 

More information about kidney cancer surgery

If you would like more information about surgery for kidney cancer you are welcome to contact the Cancer Research UK nurses. The number to call is freephone 0808 800 4040 and the lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. 

You can also contact one of the kidney cancer organisations or look at our kidney cancer reading list

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 4 February 2016