Diagnosis & Tests

for Renal cell cancer

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. A biopsy is the only certain way to confirm a diagnosis of cancer. When performing a biopsy, the doctor takes a sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory.

When a kidney cancer is suspected, a kidney imaging study is obtained. The initial imaging study is usually an ultrasound or CT scan. If cancer is suspected, the patient should be evaluated the extent of spread of stage of the cancer. Examination of both kidneys is essential to assure that one is working normally.

Genomic or Biomarker Testing-Precision Cancer Medicine

The purpose of precision cancer medicine is to define the genomic alterations in the cancers DNA that are driving that specific cancer. Precision cancer medicine utilizes molecular diagnostic and genomic testing, including DNA sequencing, to identify cancer-driving abnormalities in a cancer’s genome. Once a genetic abnormality is identified, a specific targeted therapy can be designed to attack a specific mutation or other cancer-related change in the DNA programming of the cancer cells. Precision cancer medicine uses targeted drugs and immunotherapies engineered to directly attack the cancer cells with specific abnormalities, leaving normal cells largely unharmed.


When diagnosed with renal cell cancer further tests are necessary to determine the extent of spread (stage) of the cancer. Cancer’s stage is a key factor in determining the best treatment. The stage of cancer may be determined at the time of diagnosis or it may be necessary to perform additional tests.

Intravenous pyelogram (IVP): An IVP is a procedure which involves the injection of dye (contrast) into the blood. When the contrast travels through the kidneys and ureters, it allows these organs to be visualized with X-rays (fluoroscopy).

Ultrasound: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal organs and tissues and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.

Imaging tests: Tests such as X-rays, CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) are used to help determine the stage and whether the cancer has spread.

  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: A CT scan is a technique for imaging body tissues and organs, during which X-ray transmissions are converted to detailed images, using a computer to synthesize X-ray data. A CT scan is conducted with a large machine positioned outside the body that can rotate to capture detailed images of the organs and tissues inside the body.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI uses a magnetic field rather than X-rays, and can often distinguish more accurately between healthy and diseased tissue than a CT. An MRI gives a better picture of cancer located near bone than does CT, does not use radiation, and provides pictures from various angles that enable doctors to construct a three-dimensional image of the cancer.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET): Positron emission tomography scanning is an advanced technique for imaging body tissues and organs. One characteristic of living tissue is the metabolism of sugar. Prior to a PET scan, a substance containing a type of sugar attached to a radioactive isotope (a molecule that emits radiation) is injected into the patient’s vein. The cancer cells “take up” the sugar and attached isotope, which emits positively charged, low energy radiation (positrons) that create the production of gamma rays that can be detected by the PET machine to produce a picture. If no gamma rays are detected in the scanned area, it is unlikely that the mass in question contains living cancer cells.

Bone Scan: A test to check if there are cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.

Stages of Renal Cell Cancer

Staging is ultimately confirmed by surgical removal of the cancer and exploration of the area adjacent to the kidney. The following are simplified definitions of the various stages of kidney cancer. Click on a stage for an overview of the most recent information available concerning the comprehensive treatment of renal cell cancer.

Stage I: The primary cancer is 7 centimeters (about 3 inches) or less and is limited to the kidney, with no spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage II: The primary cancer is greater than 7 centimeters (about 3 inches) and is limited to the kidney, with no spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage III: The cancer has spread to the regional lymph nodes but not to distant sites in the body, and/or extends to the renal veins or vena cava (large vein returning blood to the heart located in the middle of the abdomen near the back).

Stage IV: The cancer has spread to distant sites or invades directly beyond the local area.

Recurrent Renal Cell Cancer: Renal cell cancer has returned after primary treatment.

Next: Treatment & Management of Renal cell cancer

Next: Screening & Prevention for Renal cell cancer


American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2017. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2017.

Golimbu M, Joshi P, Sperber A, et al.: Renal cell carcinoma: survival and prognostic factors. Urology 27 (4): 291-301, 1986.

In: Edge SB, Byrd DR, Compton CC, et al., eds.: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 7th ed. New York, NY: Springer, 2010, pp 479-89.