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GB-PDO-01312 | Date of Preparation: November 2020

What is kidney cancer?

The information provided on this site is general education information and does not take the place of your healthcare professional’s advice. Please always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions and talk with him/her about any questions or problems you have regarding your health and treatment

Sometimes things go wrong and a cell will become abnormal. It turns into a cancer cell. This can change how the cell 'talks' to other cells and can cause it to grow and multiple too much.1,2

Kidney cancer is out-of-control growth of cells that can happen in a person's kidney. Cells are the tiny building blocks of our kidneys and the other parts of our bodies.1,2

When lots of cancer cells grow and multiply, they can form a lump calledd a tumour. A lump where cancer first starts is called a primary tumour.1

Doctors and other healthcare professionals often use complex medical names to decribe words linked to cancer. You may overhear words such as:

  • Renal - Latin for kidney
  • Carcinoma - Latin for cancer or tumour
  • Nephrons - These are tiny tubes which filter your blood to remove waste. In your kidneys, there are many thousands of nephrons
  • Malignant - This means a cancer is growing

Your patient journey

As a patient who has just been prescribed Keytruda and axitinib for advanced kidney cancer, then you may find it useful to start with the following chapters:

Download Chapters 1–3 and 9–12
Download Chapters 1–4

Chapter 1

PDF 120 KB

Emergency contact details


Chapter 2

PDF 1.3 KB

Using your treatment diary


Chapter 3

PDF 185 KB

Treatment information


Chapter 4

PDF 671 KB

Learn about kidney cancer

Download Chapters 5–7

Chapter 5

PDF 527 KB

Symptoms and diagnosis of kidney cancer


Chapter 6

PDF 381 KB

Treating kidney cancer


Chapter 7

PDF 636 KB

Living with kidney cancer

Download Chapters 8–12

Chapter 8

PDF 1.1 KB

Surgery for kidney cancer


Chapter 9

PDF 542 KB

Getting ready for treatment


Chapter 10

PDF 1.7 KB

Your treatment


Chapter 11

PDF 402 KB

Frequently asked questions


Chapter 12

PDF 379 KB

What to ask

Download Chapter 13

Chapter 13

PDF 816 KB

Living with kidney cancer


Your healthcare professional will have provided you with a Patient Information Brochure and Patient Alert Card. Please always refer to these materials as the first point of reference when seeking information on your treatment.

What are kidneys?

Your kidney are 2 bean-shaped organs located above your waist on either side of your spine. They filter your blood to remove waste products and make urine (wee).1

Who is at risk for kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is the 7th most common cancer in the UK. Over 11,000 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer each year.1

Kidney cancer affects people from different backgrounds, ages, and ethnic groups. However, there are certain things that can raise your chance of developing kidney cancer:

Sex: Kidney cancer is more common in men than women.1

Age: Kidney cancer risk increases with age.1

To find out more information, download Chapter 4: Learn about kidney cancer:

Download Chapters 4

Types of kidney cancer

There are different types of kidney cancer. The type of cancer depends on which type of cell the cancer starts in and this cancer can affect how doctors treat it.

The most common type of kidney cancer is called Renal Cell Carcinoma (RCC). 9 out of 10 kidney cancers are classed as RCC. It starts in the cells lining the nephrons.1,3,4

You may see healthcare professionals refer to technical terms such as clear cell carcinoma or papillary carcinoma. These are different sub-types of RCC which describe the type of cells they can see under the microscope.4

To find out more information, download Chapter 5: Symptoms and diagnosis:

Download Chapter 5

How can kidney cancer spread?

While primary tumours start to grow in the kidney itself, sometimes, some of the cancer cells can break off and travel to another part of the body.1

The most common way that kidney cancer cells can travel around the body is using the body’s lymphatic system. The diagram shows some examples of the parts of the body that make up the lymphatic system.1

What is the lymphatic system?

Throughout your body you have a series of connected tubes and vessels which carry a fluid called lymph. This system is similar to your arteries and veins, but instead of carrying blood, the lymph contains cells which fight infections.1,2

The lymphatic system also has areas called nodes which can be found all around the body. These are small bean-shaped structures (smaller than the kidneys) which normally get rid of bacteria and viruses by using tiny filters.1,2

If kidney cancer cells break off from the primary tumour, they can get stuck in the lymph nodes and start to grow.1,2

Lymph nodes are usually the first place that doctors will check to see if the cancer has spread.1,2

However, sometimes kidney cancer cells will also start to grow in other parts of the body, such as the lungs or in bones. If this happens it is called advanced kidney cancer or metastasis, and will require different types of treatment.1

For further support

Talking to other people:

You might find it easier to talk to someone outside of your own family and friends. Hospices offer counselling, spiritual care and psychological support that you can access locally. Speak to your healthcare team to find out more information about your local hospice.

The following helplines are also available:

Cancer Research UK

Helpline: 0808 800 4040
Mon–Fri 9am–5pm

Macmillan Cancer Support

Macmillan Support Line:
0808 808 00 00

Kidney Cancer UK & Kidney Cancer Scotland

Patients' support Careline:
0800 002 9002
Mon–Fri 9am–4pm

Kidney Cancer Support Network

Helpline: 01209 890326
Mon–Fri 10am–4pm

Cancer Research UK has online self-help strategies across a range of mental health issues related to kidney cancer that you can explore in your own time

Visit to learn more.

Please note: these are third party websites and MSD has not influenced their content.
MSD makes no warranties or representations of any kind as to their accuracy or completeness and shall have no liability for any loss or damage of any kind that may arise from your use of such content or information. Inclusion of any third party link does not imply an endorsement or recommendation by MSD


  1. Cancer Research UK. Available at:
  2. Available at:
  3. NHS. Kidney Cancer. Available at:
  4. Kidney Cancer UK. Available at:

GB-RCC-00153 | Date of Preparation: November 2020