Kidney Cancer Tests

Diagnosing kidney cancer

Once you notice symptoms, or as part of a routine examination, your doctor may use the following tests to look for kidney cancer:

  • Physical exam
  • Blood test: Abnormal readings in blood analysis – particularly red blood cell count, liver enzyme or blood calcium readings – can be indicative of kidney cancer.
  • Urine lab test (urinalysis): A sample of your urine is taken and examined for cancerous or precancerous cells or biomarkers indicating kidney cancer.
  • Biopsy: Surgical removal of suspicious tissues for further examination

If cancer is found, additional tests are performed to determine the type and stage of disease. These diagnostic tests include:

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan: This test involves taking a series of X-ray images at different angles to form a computer-generated image, which determines tumor size, location and number. CT scans may also be used to guide a biopsy.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This procedure images the kidneys using a powerful magnet, radio waves and a computer. Contrast agents may be injected to create clearer images. MRI may also be used to guide a biopsy.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: For this test, a radioactive material is injected into your bloodstream. Because cancer cells grow and divide faster than normal cells, they will absorb more of this radioactive material, which is then detectable as bright spots in a PET scanner.
  • Ultrasound: High energy sound waves are used to create images of the kidney, and they may be also be used to guide a biopsy.
  • Bone scan: This procedure uses a small amount of radioactive material to determine if kidney cancer cells have spread to the bones.
  • Chest X-ray: Because the lungs are a common site for kidney cancer’s spread, a chest X-ray may be used to see if the disease has metastasized.
  • Genomic testing: The cancerous tissue is tested to see if it exhibits certain genetic mutations, which can be used to determine better treatments.

Based on the results of these tests, the kidney cancer is then staged according to its size, number of lymph nodes affected and whether it has spread to nearby or distant organs. Kidney cancer is also evaluated by “grades” based on how much it resembles normal kidney cells and how aggressively it grows.

What are the current screening guidelines for kidney cancer?

There are currently no screening guidelines for kidney cancer, since no screenings have been shown to lower risk of dying from kidney cancer for people of average risk. However, your physician may recommend screening if you are at a high risk of developing kidney cancer, due to:

  • Personal/family history
  • Specific genetic mutations
  • Kidney conditions
  • Workplace chemical exposure