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This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Incidence and Mortality
Estimated new cases and deaths from renal cell (kidney and renal pelvis) cancer in the United States in 2012:
Renal cell cancer, also called renal adenocarcinoma, or hypernephroma, can often be cured if it is diagnosed and treated when still localized to the kidney and to the immediately surrounding tissue. The probability of cure is directly related to the stage or degree of tumor dissemination. Even when regional lymphatics or blood vessels are involved with tumor, a significant number of patients can achieve prolonged survival and probable cure. When distant metastases are present, disease-free survival is poor; however, occasional selected patients will survive after surgical resection of all known tumor. Because a majority of patients are diagnosed when the tumor is still relatively localized and amenable to surgical removal, approximately 40% of all patients with renal cell cancer survive for 5 years. Occasionally, patients with locally advanced or metastatic disease may exhibit indolent courses lasting several years. Late tumor recurrence many years after initial treatment also occasionally occurs.
Renal cell cancer is one of the few tumors in which well-documented cases of spontaneous tumor regression in the absence of therapy exist, but this occurs very rarely and may not lead to long-term survival. Surgical resection is the mainstay of treatment of this disease. Even in patients with disseminated tumor, locoregional forms of therapy may play an important role in palliating symptoms of the primary tumor or of ectopic hormone production. Systemic therapy has demonstrated only limited effectiveness.
Other PDQ summaries containing information related to renal cell cancer include the following:
Approximately 85% of renal cell cancers are adenocarcinomas, and most of those are of proximal tubular origin. Most of the remainder are transitional cell carcinomas of the renal pelvis. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Transitional Cell Cancer of the Renal Pelvis and Ureter Treatment for more information.) Adenocarcinomas may be separated into clear cell and granular cell carcinomas; however, the two cell types may occur together in some tumors. Some investigators have found that granular cell tumors have a worse prognosis, but this finding is not universal. Distinguishing between well-differentiated renal adenocarcinomas and renal adenomas can be difficult. The diagnosis is usually made arbitrarily on the basis of size of the mass, but size alone should not influence the treatment approach, since metastases can occur with lesions as small as 0.5 centimeter.
Note: This Stage Information section has been updated to include information from the seventh edition (2010) of the American Joint Committee on Cancer's AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is responsible for maintaining this summary, is currently reviewing the new staging categories to determine whether additional changes need to be made to other parts of the summary. Any necessary changes will be made as soon as possible.
The staging system for renal cell cancer is based on the degree of tumor spread beyond the kidney.[1,2,3] Involvement of blood vessels may not be a poor prognostic sign if the tumor is otherwise confined to the substance of the kidney. Abnormal liver function test results may be caused by a paraneoplastic syndrome that is reversible with tumor removal, and these types of results do not necessarily represent metastatic disease. Except when computed tomography (CT) examination is equivocal or when iodinated contrast material is contraindicated, CT scanning is as good as or better than magnetic resonance imaging for detecting renal masses.
Definitions of TNM
The American Joint Committee on Cancer has designated staging by TNM classification to define renal cell cancer.
Current treatment cures more than 50% of patients with stage I disease, but results in patients with stage IV disease are very poor. Thus, all patients with newly diagnosed renal cell cancer can appropriately be considered candidates for clinical trials, when possible.
Stage I renal cell cancer is defined by the American Joint Committee on Cancer's TNM classification system:
Surgical resection is the accepted, often curative, therapy for stage I renal cell cancer. Resection may be simple or radical. The latter operation includes removal of the kidney, adrenal gland, perirenal fat, and Gerota fascia, with or without a regional lymph node dissection. Some, but not all, surgeons believe the radical operation yields superior results. In patients who are not candidates for surgery, external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) or arterial embolization can provide palliation. In patients with bilateral stage I neoplasms (concurrent or subsequent), bilateral partial nephrectomy or unilateral partial nephrectomy with contralateral radical nephrectomy, when technically feasible, may be a preferred alternative to bilateral nephrectomy with dialysis or transplantation. Increasing evidence suggests that a partial nephrectomy is curative in selected cases. A pathologist should examine the gross specimen as well as the frozen section from the parenchymal margin of excision.
Standard treatment options:
Current Clinical Trials
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I renal cell cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.
Stage II renal cell cancer is defined by the American Joint Committee on Cancer's TNM classification system:
Radical resection is the accepted, often curative, therapy for stage II renal cell cancer. The operation includes removal of the kidney, adrenal gland, perirenal fat, and Gerota fascia, with or without a regional lymph node dissection. Lymphadenectomy is commonly employed, but its effectiveness has not been definitively proven. External-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) has been given before or after nephrectomy without conclusive evidence that this improves survival when compared with the results of surgery alone; however, it may be of benefit in selected patients with more extensive tumors. In patients who are not candidates for surgery, arterial embolization can provide palliation.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II renal cell cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
Stage III renal cell cancer is defined by the American Joint Committee on Cancer's TNM classification system:
Treatment information for patients whose disease has the following classification:
Radical resection is the accepted, often curative, therapy for stage III renal cell cancer. The operation includes removal of the kidney, adrenal gland, perirenal fat, and Gerota fascia, with or without a regional lymph node dissection. Lymphadenectomy is commonly employed, but its effectiveness has not been definitively proven. External-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) has been given before or after nephrectomy without conclusive evidence that this improves survival when compared with the results of surgery alone; however, it may be of benefit in selected patients with more extensive tumors. In patients who are not candidates for surgery, arterial embolization can provide palliation. In patients with bilateral stage T3a neoplasms (concurrent or subsequent), bilateral partial nephrectomy or unilateral partial nephrectomy with contralateral radical nephrectomy, when technically feasible, may be a preferred alternative to bilateral nephrectomy with dialysis or transplantation.
Treatment information for patients whose disease has the following classification:
Radical resection is the accepted, often curative, therapy for this stage of renal cell cancer. The operation includes removal of the kidney, adrenal gland, perirenal fat, and Gerota fascia, with or without a regional lymph node dissection. Lymphadenectomy is commonly employed, but its effectiveness has not been definitively proven. Surgery is extended to remove the entire renal vein and caval thrombus and a portion of the vena cava as necessary. EBRT has been given before or after nephrectomy without conclusive evidence that this improves survival when compared with the results of surgery alone; however, it may be of benefit in selected patients with more extensive tumors. In patients who are not candidates for surgery, arterial embolization can provide palliation. In patients with stage T3b neoplasms who manifest concurrent or subsequent renal cell carcinoma in the contralateral kidney, a partial nephrectomy, when technically feasible, may be a preferred alternative to bilateral nephrectomy with dialysis or transplantation.[3,5,6]
Treatment information for patients whose disease has the following classifications:
This stage of renal cell cancer is curable with surgery in a small minority of cases. A radical nephrectomy and lymph node dissection is necessary. The value of preoperative and postoperative EBRT has not been demonstrated, but EBRT may be used for palliation in patients who are not candidates for surgery. Arterial embolization of the tumor with gelfoam or other materials may be employed preoperatively to reduce blood loss at nephrectomy or for palliation in patients with inoperable disease.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III renal cell cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
Stage IV renal cell cancer is defined by the American Joint Committee on Cancer's TNM classification system:
The prognosis for any treated renal cell cancer patient with progressing, recurring, or relapsing disease is poor, regardless of cell type or stage. Almost all patients with stage IV renal cell cancer are incurable. The question and selection of further treatment depends on many factors, including prior treatment and site of recurrence, as well as individual patient considerations. Carefully selected patients may benefit from surgical resection of localized metastatic disease, particularly if they have had a prolonged, disease-free interval since their primary therapy.
Tumor embolization, external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT), and nephrectomy can aid in the palliation of symptoms caused by the primary tumor or related ectopic hormone or cytokine production. For patients with metastatic disease, two randomized studies have demonstrated an overall survival (OS) benefit in selected patients who have undergone initial cytoreductive nephrectomy prior to the administration of interferon-alpha.[2,3]
In the larger study, 246 patients were randomly assigned to either undergo a nephrectomy followed by interferon-alpha or receive interferon-alpha alone. The median OS was 11.1 months when the primary tumor was removed first (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.2–16.5) compared with 8.1 months in the control arm (95% CI, 5.4–9.5; P = .05). In the smaller study, 85 patients with identical eligibility criteria were randomly assigned to treatment as in the larger study. Patients who underwent nephrectomy prior to receiving interferon-alpha had a median OS of 17 months compared with an OS of 7 months in patients who received interferon-alpha alone (hazard ratio [HR], 0.54; 95% CI, 0.31–0.94; P = .03).
These studies were restricted to patients who were asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic, with a performance status (PS) of zero or one, according to the Eastern Oncology Group (ECOG) rating scale; these patients were also considered to be candidates for postoperative immunotherapy.[2,3][Level of evidence: 1iiA] Whether the benefit of cytoreductive nephrectomy extends to patients who are not subsequently treated with interferon-alpha has not been tested.
Selected patients with solitary or a limited number of distant metastases can achieve prolonged survival with nephrectomy and surgical resection of the metastases.[4,5,6,7,8,9] Even patients with brain metastases had similar results. The likelihood of achieving therapeutic benefit with this approach appears enhanced in patients with a long disease-free interval between the initial nephrectomy and the development of metastatic disease.
Cytokine therapy with interferon-alpha or interleukin-2 (IL-2) has been shown to induce objective responses, and interferon-alpha appears to have a modest impact on survival in selected patients. Interferon-alpha has approximately a 15% objective response rate in appropriately selected individuals. In general, these patients have nonbulky pulmonary and/or soft tissue metastases with excellent PS ratings of zero or one, according to the ECOG rating scale, and the patients show no weight loss. The interferon-alpha doses used in studies reporting good response rates have been in an intermediate range (6–20 million units 3 times weekly). A Cochrane analysis of six randomized trials, with a total of 963 patients, indicated a HR for survival of 0.78 (CI, 0.67–0.90) or a weighted average improvement in survival of 2.6 months.[Level of evidence: 1iiA]
High-dose IL-2 produces a similar overall response rate to interferon-alpha, but approximately 5% of patients had durable complete remissions.[12,13,14,15,16,17] IL-2 has never been shown in a randomized controlled trial to result in longer survival. The current use of high-dose IL-2 mainly derives from the fact that it is the only systemic therapy that has been associated with inducing durable complete remissions, albeit in a small fraction (about 5%) of patients who are eligible for this treatment. The optimum dose of IL-2 is unknown. High-dose therapy appears to be associated with higher response rates but with more toxic effects. Low-dose inpatient regimens have activity against renal cell carcinoma with fewer toxic effects, especially hypotension, but have not been shown to be superior to placebo or any alternative regimen with regard to survival or quality of life. Outpatient subcutaneous administration has also demonstrated responses with acceptable toxic effects but, again, with unclear survival or quality of life benefit. Combinations of IL-2 and interferon-alpha have been studied, but outcomes have not been better with high-dose or low-dose IL-2 alone.[20,21]
Antiangiogenic and Other Targeted Therapy
A growing understanding of the biology of cancer in general, and renal cell carcinoma in particular, has led to the development and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of six new agents targeting specific growth pathways. Two of the approved targeted therapies block the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), a serine/threonine protein kinase that regulates cell growth, division, and survival.
Temsirolimus, an intravenously administered mTOR inhibitor, was shown to result in prolonged OS compared with interferon-alpha in a phase III randomized controlled trial that enrolled intermediate- and poor-risk patients. The trial enrolled patients with a variety of subtypes of renal cell carcinoma and was not restricted to clear cell kidney cancer. The HR for death was 0.73 (95% CI, 0.58–0.92, P = .008), making temsirolimus the only therapy for renal cell carcinoma to have clearly been shown to result in longer OS than interferon-alpha using conventional statistical analysis.
Everolimus is an orally administered mTOR inhibitor that was evaluated in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled phase III trial. The trial enrolled patients with metastatic renal cell carcinoma with a clear cell component that had progressed during or within 6 months of stopping treatment with sunitinib or sorafenib, or both drugs. Median progression-free survival (PFS) was 4.0 months with everolimus compared with 1.9 months with placebo. No difference in OS was reported.
Based on research showing that most clear cell renal cell carcinomas carried a mutation resulting in constitutive production of cytokines stimulating angiogenesis, several agents that targeted vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-mediated pathways were developed. Several of these agents have been shown in randomized controlled trials to significantly delay progression of clear cell renal cell carcinoma, but none has resulted in a statistically significant increase in OS as conventionally assessed. Many of these trials allowed crossover upon progression and, in some instances, other agents with similar biological activity were available to patients after they withdrew from the clinical trial. These facts may have made it more difficult to detect an OS benefit. For the clinician, this makes it challenging to determine the real benefit of these drugs to the patient. The four FDA-approved anti-VEGF agents include three oral tyrosine kinase inhibitors, pazopanib, sorafenib and sunitinib, and an anti-VEGF monoclonal antibody, bevacizumab. Axitinib is a newer, highly selective, and more potent inhibitor of VEGF receptors 1, 2, and 3 and has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of advanced renal cell carcinoma after the failure of one prior systemic therapy.
Sunitinib and the combination of bevacizumab plus interferon-alpha have each been associated with longer PFS than interferon-alpha alone in randomized controlled trials. Sunitinib is an orally available multikinase inhibitor (VEGFR-1, VEGFR-2, PDGFR, c-Kit). In 750 previously untreated patients, all of whom had clear cell kidney cancer, a phase III trial compared sunitinib with interferon-alpha. Sunitinib as first-line systemic therapy was associated with a median PFS of 11 months compared with 5 months for interferon-alpha. The HR for progression was 0.42 (95% CI, 0.32–0.54; P < .001).[Level of evidence: 1iiDiii] However, the analysis for OS showed a strong but statistically nonsignificant trend to improved survival (26.4 months vs. 21.8 months, HR, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.669–1.001; P = .051).[Level of evidence: 1iiDiii] Bevacizumab, a monoclonal antibody that binds to and neutralizes circulating VEGF protein, delayed progression of clear cell renal cell carcinoma when compared with placebo in patients with disease refractory to biological therapy. Similarly, bevacizumab plus interferon-alpha as first-line therapy resulted in longer PFS but not OS compared with interferon alpha alone in two similarly designed randomized controlled trials.[28,29]
Axitinib was shown to prolong progression of disease when used as second-line systemic therapy. A randomized controlled trial of 723 patients conducted at 175 sites in 22 countries evaluated axitinib versus sorafenib as treatment for renal cell carcinoma with a clear cell component that had progressed during or after first-line treatment with sunitinib (54%), cytokines (35%), bevacizumab plus interferon (8%), or temsirolimus (3%). The primary endpoint was PFS, and the data were analyzed when disease in 61% of the axitinib patients and 71% of the sorafenib patients had progressed.
Median PFS was 6.7 months for axitinib and 4.7 months for sorafenib (HR, 0.665; 95% CI, 0.544–0.812, P < .0001 for progression of death using a one-sided log-rank test and a threshold of P < .025 for significance). However, the largest benefit was seen in patients who received cytokines as first-line therapy and whose median PFS was 12.1 months with axitinib versus 6.5 months with sorafenib (P < .0001). In patients who had previously received sunitinib, axitinib was associated with a 1.4-month increase in PFS compared to sorafenib (4.8 months compared to 3.4 months, one-sided P = .0107). There were not enough deaths (n = 223 compared to 417 needed as per protocol) at the time of publication to report results on OS. Comparing the toxicity of the two regimens is complicated because the axitinib arm included a dose-escalation component such that only those patients who tolerated the lower dose were subsequently given the higher doses. Hypertension, nausea, dysphonia, and hypothyroidism were more common with axitinib, whereas palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia, alopecia, and rash were more common with sorafenib.
Pazopanib and sorafenib are both orally available multikinase inhibitors (VEGFR-1, VEGFR-2, VEGFR-3, PDGFR, and c-KIT for pazopanib and cRAF, bRAF, KIT, FLT-3, VEGFR-2, VEGFR-3, and PDGFR-β for sorafenib) and have also been approved for the treatment of patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma.
Pazopanib was evaluated in a randomized, placebo-controlled, international trial that enrolled 435 patients with clear cell or predominantly clear cell renal cell carcinoma. Nearly half of the patients had previously received cytokine therapy while the remainder were treatment naïve. PFS was significantly prolonged in the pazopanib arm at 9.2 months versus 4.2 months in the placebo arm. The HR for progression was 0.46 (95% CI, 0.34–0.62; P < .0001), and the median duration of response was longer than 1 year.
In an international, multicenter, randomized trial with the primary endpoints of PFS and OS, 769 patients were stratified by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center prognostic risk category and by country and were randomly assigned to receive either sorafenib (400 mg bid) or a placebo. Approximately 82% of the patients had received prior IL-2 and/or interferon-alpha in both arms of the study. The median PFS for patients randomly assigned to sorafenib was 167 days compared with 84 days for patients randomly assigned to placebo (P < .001). The estimated HR for the risk of progression with sorafenib compared with a placebo was 0.44 (95% CI, 0.35–0.55). There was no significant difference in OS.[Level of evidence: 1iDiii] A subsequent phase II study of 189 patients randomly assigned to either sorafenib or interferon-alpha reported no difference (5.7 months vs. 5.6 months) in PFS, but sorafenib was associated with better quality of life than interferon-alpha.
Responses to cytotoxic chemotherapy generally have not exceeded 10% for any regimen that has been studied in adequate numbers of patients.
Because of the lack of curative therapy for metastatic disease and the promise of targeted therapies, patients should be considered for the many ongoing clinical trials testing single or combination therapies, including the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV renal cell cancer and recurrent renal cell cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of renal cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewer for Renal Cell Cancer Treatment is:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Renal Cell Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/renalcell/HealthProfessional. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
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Last Revised: 2012-07-20
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