Surgery for kidney cancer

Surgery is the main treatment for kidney cancer. It may be the only treatment you need. The operation will depend on the stage of the cancer and your general health. There are different types of surgery:

  • Surgery to remove part of the kidney (kidney-sparing surgery).
  • Surgery to remove the whole kidney (nephrectomy).

Surgery to remove part of the kidney is often used to treat cancers under 4cm. This type of surgery is also used for people who have only one kidney or have kidney disease.

If you have surgery to remove the whole kidney, the surgeon may also remove some surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. You can live a normal life with one kidney.

There are different ways a surgeon can operate on the kidney. These include:

  • open surgery
  • keyhole surgery
  • robotic surgery.

Surgery

Surgery may be the only treatment you need. The type of operation you have will depend on the stage of the cancer and on your general health. It is important to talk to your surgeon and specialist nurse about the operation before you have it.


Removing part of the kidney

This is the most common operation for cancers that are smaller than 4cm. But it may sometimes be done for bigger cancers.

The surgeon removes only the part of the kidney with the cancer. This is called a partial nephrectomy or kidney-sparing surgery. The aim is to remove the cancer, and to leave you with as much normal kidney tissue as possible. This is so the kidney can still work.

Kidney-sparing surgery may also be done if it is important to try to keep the affected kidney. For example, this might happen if you have only one working kidney or have kidney disease. If you have an inherited type of kidney cancer, you may be offered this operation. This is because there is a risk you could develop a cancer in the other kidney. You may be referred to a specialist hospital for this type of surgery. This may mean you have to travel for treatment.

After surgery you will have to take things slowly to build up your strength.

Christine, diagnosed with kidney cancer


Removing the whole kidney (nephrectomy)

This is when the surgeon removes the whole kidney and some surrounding tissue. This is called a radical nephrectomy. Your surgeon may also remove lymph nodes close to the kidney to check them for cancer cells.

You can live a normal life with one kidney. It will be able to do the work of both kidneys. Removing a kidney is a big operation and is not suitable for everyone. Your doctors may need to do tests to check you are fit enough to cope with the surgery.

If there is cancer in one of the large blood vessels leaving the kidney, it may be possible to have an operation to remove it. But this is a more complicated operation. You will need to go to a specialist hospital for this surgery.


Removing the kidney when the cancer has spread

If the cancer has already spread to other places in the body, your surgeon may still suggest removing the kidney. This will not usually cure the cancer, but it can help some people live longer. It may help other treatments work better and reduce cancer symptoms.

You need to consider the possible advantages of having the kidney removed as well as the effects of having a big operation. Your doctors will talk to you about the possible benefits and disadvantages.


Open, laparoscopic and robotic surgery

There are different ways a surgeon can operate on the kidney. Your surgeon will explain how they will do your operation and answer any questions you have.

Open surgery

The surgeon makes one large cut (incision) just under the bottom rib or between the two bottom ribs. This cut can be up to 30cm long. After the operation, the surgeon stitches or staples the wound closed.

Open surgery scar
Open surgery scar

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Keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery

The surgeon makes two or three small cuts and one larger cut.

They use a laparoscope to see and work inside the tummy (abdomen). The laparoscope is a thin tube with a light and a camera. It sends video images to a monitor. The surgeon puts the laparoscope into the abdomen through one of the small cuts in the skin. They usually make a larger cut close to the belly button. They usually remove the kidney through this cut. The position of the cuts may vary from person to person. Your surgeon can talk to you about this.

Recovery from keyhole surgery is usually quicker than recovery from open surgery. This is because the wound is smaller.

Keyhole surgery scars
Keyhole surgery scars

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Robot-assisted surgery

The surgeon may use a specialised machine to help with keyhole surgery. There are instruments attached to the machine, which the surgeon controls. This is called robot-assisted surgery. It makes it possible for the surgeon to do very precise surgery.


Surgery to remove a secondary cancer

Rarely, an operation may be done to remove a secondary cancer in another part of the body. This is very specialised surgery. It is generally only possible if the cancer has spread to a limited area – usually just to one place in the body. It is also important that you are fit enough to cope with the operation.

Removing a secondary cancer may help control the cancer for longer. Occasionally, it may be used to try to cure the cancer.

I was 61 when I had my operation, and I know of others who are older, as well as younger, who have come through this.

Christine, diagnosed with kidney cancer

Back to Surgery for kidney cancer

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.