Being diagnosed with kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is often diagnosed by chance when people have a scan for another reason. Some notice symptoms, such as blood in their urine. If your GP suspects your symptoms may be due to kidney cancer, they’ll ask you to go to a specialist clinic (haematuria clinic) to have some tests. If the results show you have kidney cancer you should be seen by a specialist quickly.

You’ll then have different tests to find out more information about the cancer. Possible tests include:

  • a blood test
  • an ultrasound scan
  • a CT scan
  • an MRI scan
  • a guided biopsy – a sample of kidney cells is taken and examined under a microscope. This is usually carried out under local anaesthetic during a CT scan to make sure the needle is in the right place.

Waiting for test results can be difficult. You may want to talk to someone close to you or one of our cancer support specialists.

Getting diagnosed

Often people are diagnosed by chance after having a scan for another reason. Some people go to see their family doctor (GP) with symptoms, such as blood in their urine.

If you have blood in your urine (haematuria), your GP may refer you to a ‘one-stop’ haematuria clinic. At this clinic, all the tests needed to make a diagnosis can often be done at the same time.

If tests or symptoms suggest you could have a kidney cancer, you should be seen by a specialist within 14 days.

At the hospital

You’ll see a urologist or a specialist nurse who will ask you about your symptoms and general health. They’ll also examine you and arrange some of the following tests.

Blood tests

You will have blood samples taken. These help your doctors to check how well your kidneys and liver are working. They also show the number of blood cells in your blood. This is called a blood count.

Ultrasound scan

This test can help to diagnose kidney cancer. It uses sound waves to build up a picture of the kidneys, ureters and bladder. It’s a painless test and only takes a few minutes.

If your bladder is to be looked at as well, you will need to have a full bladder for the scan. The hospital will give you instructions about this. You lie on your back and the person doing the ultrasound spreads gel over your tummy (abdomen) area. They then move a small device, which produces sound waves, over your tummy. A computer turns the sound waves into a picture.

Ultrasound can look for changes in the shape of the kidneys. It can help to show if a lump is a cyst (a fluid-filled lump) or a tumour. It can also show the position of a cancer and measure its size.

CT (computerised tomography) scan

A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. The scan takes 10–30 minutes and is painless. It uses a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and will not harm anyone you come into contact with. You will be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the scan.

CT scan
CT scan

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You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. It’s important to let your doctor know if you are allergic to iodine or have asthma, because you could have a more serious reaction to the injection.

You’ll probably be able to go home as soon as the scan is over.

MRI scan

This test uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body. The scanner is a powerful magnet so you may be asked to complete and sign a checklist to make sure it's safe for you. The checklist asks about any metal implants you may have, such as a pacemaker, surgical clips, bone pins, etc. You should also tell your doctor if you've ever worked with metal or in the metal industry as very tiny fragments of metal can sometimes lodge in the body. If you do have any metal in your body it's likely that you won't be able to have an MRI scan. In this situation another type of scan can be used.

Before the scan, you'll be asked to remove any metal belongings including jewellery. Some people are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm, which doesn't usually cause discomfort. This is called a contrast medium and can help the images from the scan to show up more clearly. During the test you'll lie very still on a couch inside a long cylinder (tube) for about 30 minutes. It's painless but can be slightly uncomfortable, and some people feel a bit claustrophobic. It's also noisy, but you'll be given earplugs or headphones. You can hear, and speak to, the person operating the scanner.

Chest x-ray

This uses x-rays to take a picture of your chest, to check your lungs and heart.

Guided biopsy

This is done if you need to have a sample of tissue taken from the kidney (a biopsy). The doctor uses an ultrasound scanner or CT scanner to guide them to the exact area of kidney where the biopsy will be taken.

The doctor injects some local anaesthetic into the skin to numb the area over the kidney. They then guide the needle through your skin into the kidney. And, they draw a small sample of tissue into the needle. The sample is then sent to the laboratory to be checked.

You may need to stay in hospital for a few hours, or overnight, after this procedure.

Waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse or one of the organisations listed on our database, can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.