Risk factors for kidney cancer

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes kidney cancer develops in people who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

Kidney cancer occurs most often in people older than 50. It is more common in men than in women.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Smoking tobacco

Your risk for kidney cancer increases with the amount of tobacco you smoke and the length of time you smoke.

Overweight and obesity

Overweight and obesity increase the risk for renal cell carcinoma (RCC), the most common type of kidney cancer. Researchers are trying to find out how overweight and obesity increase the risk.

High blood pressure

It is not clear exactly how high blood pressure increases the risk for kidney cancer.

Certain inherited genetic conditions

The following inherited genetic conditions increase the risk of developing different types of cancerous tumours of the kidney. People with these genetic conditions develop kidney cancer at a younger age than other people. These genetic conditions are not very common. They cause only a small number of all kidney cancers.

Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL) is a rare inherited disorder that causes tumours and cysts to develop in different parts of the body, including the kidney. Tumours usually appear during early adulthood. VHL increases the risk of developing clear cell RCC.

Hereditary papillary renal carcinoma (HPRC) is an inherited type of kidney cancer where people develop many papillary RCC tumours in both kidneys. It is also known as papillary RCC type 1.

Hereditary leiomyomatosis renal cell carcinoma (HLRCC) increases the risk of developing non-cancerous tumours, called leiomyomas, in the skin or uterus. It also increases the risk of developing papillary RCC type 2.

Birt-Hogg-Dube (BHD) syndrome is a very rare genetic condition that affects the skin and lungs. It also increases the risk of certain types of tumours, including cancerous and non-cancerous kidney tumours. People with BHD can develop different types of kidney cancer, such as chromophobe RCC and clear cell RCC.

Tuberous sclerosis (TS) can cause non-cancerous tumours to form in many organs of the body, including the eyes, skin, brain, lungs, heart and kidneys. People with TS have a higher risk of developing kidney cysts and kidney cancer. They may develop renal angiomyolipoma (a non-cancerous tumour of the kidney), chromophobe RCC or clear cell RCC.

End-stage kidney disease and dialysis

End-stage kidney disease is when the kidneys can no longer remove waste products from the blood, so a person needs a kidney transplant or dialysis. Dialysis is a procedure that takes the place of the kidneys and removes waste products from the blood.

People on dialysis for a long time can develop cysts in their kidneys (acquired cystic kidney disease). Acquired cystic kidney disease in turn increases the risk of kidney cancer. The risk of kidney cancer appears to increase the longer a person is on dialysis.

People who have had a kidney transplant also seem to have a greater chance of developing kidney cancer in the other (non-transplanted) kidney.

Family history of kidney cancer

People who have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister or child) with kidney cancer have an increased risk of also developing kidney cancer. The risk is stronger if the relative is a brother or sister.

Contact with trichloroethylene (TCE) at work

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is an industrial solvent mainly used to remove grease from metal. It is also sometimes used in dry cleaning. People who come into contact with TCE at work have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer. The risk increases with higher levels of TCE.

Tall adult height

Research shows that the taller a person is, the greater their risk for kidney cancer. It is not exactly clear how being tall increases the risk.

Possible risk factors

The following factors have been linked with kidney cancer, but there is not enough evidence to show for sure that they are risk factors. More research is needed to clarify the role of these factors for kidney cancer.

  • contact with welding fumes or cadmium at work
  • horseshoe kidney (an uncommon birth defect where the tissue forming the kidneys does not divide into 2 separate kidneys)
  • arsenic in drinking water
  • personal history of thyroid cancer
  • hysterectomy
  • contact with radiation
  • hepatitis C infection

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Risk Factors for Kidney Cancer. 2017: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/kidney-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Hereditary Non-von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) Clear Cell Renal Cell Carcinoma. 2008.
  • Chow WH, Scelo G, Tarone RE . Renal Cancer. Thun MJ (ed.). Schottenfeld and Fraumeni Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 4th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2018: 51:961-976.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 83: Tobacco smoke and involuntary smoking. 2004: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol83/mono83.pdf.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 100C: Arsenic, metals, fibres and dusts: a review of human carcinogens. 2012: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100C/mono100C.pdf.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 100D: Radiation: a review of human carcinogens. 2011: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100D/mono100D.pdf.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 106: Trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and some other chlorinated agents. 2014: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol106/mono106.pdf.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 118: Welding, Molybdenum Trioxide, and Indium Tin Oxide. 2018: http://publications.iarc.fr/569.
  • Karami S, Daugherty SE, Purdue MP . Hysterectomy and kidney cancer risk: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Cancer. 2014.
  • Lane BR, Canter DJ, Rin BL, et al . Cancer of the kidney. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 63:865-884.
  • MacLeod JS, Harris MA, Tjepkema M, et al. . Cancer risks among welders and occasional welders in a national population-based cohort study: Canadian census health and environment cohort. Safety and Health at Work. Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute; 2017.
  • Safilippo KM, McTigue KM, Fidler CJ, Neaton JD, Chang Y, Fried LF, Liu S, Kuller LH . Hypertension and obesity and the risk of kidney cancer in 2 large cohorts of US men and women. Hypertension. 2014.
  • Saint-Jacques N, Parker L, Brown P, Dummer TJ . Arsenic in drinking water and urinary tract cancers: a systematic review of 30 years of epidemiological evidence. Environmental Health. 2014.
  • World Cancer Research Fund International & American Institute for Cancer Research. Continuous Update Project Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Kidney Cancer. 2015: http://www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Kidney-Cancer-2015-Report.pdf.

Reducing your risk for kidney cancer

Not smoking is the best way to lower your risk for kidney cancer. Learn how to reduce your risk of kidney cancer.