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Kidney Disease vs. Kidney Cancer: What's the Difference?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2022

Some people hear the words "kidney disease" and think "cancer." However, kidney disease and kidney cancer are 2 different health conditions.

Kidney disease can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute kidney disease may happen when someone has a blood clot, an accident, or severe dehydration. Chronic kidney disease (CKD) means the kidneys have been damaged over a long time. CKD is most often caused by other health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.1

Kidney cancer is diagnosed when someone has a growth called a tumor in one or both kidneys. There are different types of kidney cancer, but renal cell carcinoma is the most common type in adults. It is possible to have kidney tumors that are not cancer. These tumors are called benign tumors. Kidney cancers are caused by a change (mutation) in genes.2,3

The links between kidney disease and kidney cancer

While kidney disease and kidney cancer are different diseases, experts believe there are links between the conditions.4,5

First, some people get both kidney disease and kidney cancer. There may be several reasons for this. For example, risks for both kidney disease and kidney cancer include:4,5

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  • Older age
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Being very overweight
  • Being exposed to certain toxins

People who are on dialysis and those who have had a kidney transplant have a greater chance of developing kidney cancer. One study found that 1 in 5 people with chronic kidney disease developed some type of cancer within about 8 years of being diagnosed with kidney disease. The doctors in that study recommended that anyone with CKD receive age-appropriate cancer screenings.5

At the same time, some drugs used to treat kidney cancer are known to damage the kidneys. This can lead to CKD or make it worse. Tumors that get in the way of blood flowing through the kidneys can also cause kidney disease.5

Similar symptoms

Many of the symptoms of kidney disease and kidney cancer are the same, including:1,6

  • Blood in the urine
  • Feeling tired
  • Anemia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lower back pain

Both CKD and kidney cancer also may not cause symptoms in their early stages. People can have either or both conditions and not know it.1,6

Different ways to diagnose

Diagnosing kidney disease and kidney cancer share some similarities and some differences. With both diseases, your doctor begins by asking about your medical history and current symptoms. Then your doctor does a physical exam to check for unusual lumps or pain. Next they order blood and urine (pee) tests.7,8

Chronic kidney disease is usually easy to diagnose with only a blood test and a urine test. These two tests are:7

  • A GFR blood test – Checks how well your kidneys filter blood
  • A urine test – Checks for protein and blood in your pee

Kidney cancer generally requires more testing. If your doctor suspects kidney cancer, they will order a GFR and a urine test. They may order several other tests as well, including:8

  • Urine cytology – Looks for cancer cells in your pee
  • Complete blood count (CBC) – Measures the health of your blood
  • Blood chemistry tests – Checks liver function and calcium levels
  • Imaging tests such as X-ray, ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan

For both kidney disease and kidney cancer, you may need a kidney biopsy. A biopsy is a short surgery in which a doctor takes a tissue sample for testing.9

Different treatments

Kidney disease is treated by managing the health conditions that are damaging the kidneys. Generally, this means:10

  • Controlling blood pressure
  • Managing blood sugar levels
  • Losing weight
  • Making lifestyle changes such as getting enough sleep and quitting smoking
  • Controlling inflammation caused by autoimmune conditions attacking the kidneys

Once someone has progressed to kidney failure, they may be treated with dialysis or kidney transplant.1

Kidney tumors, on the other hand, may be treated with some combination of:11

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Surgery

Doctors are learning more every year about the links between kidney disease and kidney cancer. Talk with your doctor to better understand your risks for both diseases.