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How is kidney cancer diagnosed?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

To diagnose kidney cancer, a doctor will usually start with a physical exam, including a review of your symptoms and medical history. If doctors suspect kidney cancer, there are several tests they may perform. Blood and urine tests may be used to test the levels of certain substances that may indicate kidney cancer. If those tests can't confirm cancer, doctors will usually perform some kind of imaging test to look for tumors in the kidney. The most commonly-used scans include computerized tomography (CT) scans, ultrasounds, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Occasionally, doctors may perform a biopsy, which involves removing a small sample of kidney tissue to analyze under a microscope.

Many kidney cancers are detected during procedures for other diseases or conditions. If your urologist suspects a tumor or if you’re at high risk for kidney cancer,it can be diagnosed with blood and urine tests, imaging techniques (such as an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI) or, in select cases, a biopsy.

To diagnose kidney cancer, your healthcare provider will check your general health and may do blood and urine tests. He or she may also feel your abdominal area for any lumps or masses. The doctor usually orders tests and images of the kidneys and nearby organs. These may include:

  • CT (computed tomography) scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or ultrasound, which can show if a tumor is present and help tell whether it is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous)
  • IVP (intravenous pyelogram), a series of x-rays that use an injection of dye to better view the kidneys

If the diagnosis is still unclear after the above tests, a biopsy may be needed. This test is done by checking a sample of tissue under the microscope for cancer cells.

If kidney cancer is found, your healthcare provider will decide the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. This may mean more MRI and x-ray studies. Arteriography (x-rays of the blood vessels) may be done to give your doctor more information about what type of treatment is needed. A chest x-ray can help show whether the cancer has spread to your lungs, and bone scans can show whether it has spread to your bones.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.