What causes kidney cancer?

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In all forms of cancer, the development of a tumour is triggered by abnormal changes (mutations) in particular genes within the body’s cells. The various factors that are linked to the genetic changes responsible for kidney cancer are still not fully understood, but certain risk factors are known to be associated with an increased tendency to develop kidney cancer:

  • Age and gender – tumours within the kidney have been found in any age group but are most common in people over 55, and they are more common in men than in women.
  • Lifestyle factors – the major risk factors for kidney cancer are obesity and cigarette smoking. People who are overweight (Body Mass Index, BMI 25-30) increase their risk of developing kidney cancer by about one third. Obesity (BMI over 30) doubles the risk of kidney cancer compared to a person who is a healthy weight (BMI less than 25). Around 24% of all kidney cancers in the UK result from being overweight or obese. Cigarette smoking can double the risk for some people and is found to be the cause of around 13% of kidney cancers in the UK. Cigarettes contain chemicals that damage the genes of kidney cells, called carcinogens.
  • Certain medical conditions and treatments – such as cystic kidney disease, chronic kidney disease, dialysis, renal stones, high blood pressure, and previous radiotherapy to the tummy, can increase the likelihood of developing kidney cancer.
  • Inherited conditions – such as von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome, Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis and hereditary papillary RCC (HPRCC) can increase the risk of developing kidney cancer.
  • Workplace exposure to some chemicals, materials, or industrial processes, e.g., cadmium, lead, asbestos, trichloroethylene, blast furnaces or coke-ovens in the steel and coal industries
  • Pain-relief medication, such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), e.g., ibuprofen, may increase your risk of kidney cancer compared to people who have never or rarely used these medications.


Cancer Research UK: Kidney cancer

Macmillan: Kidney cancer

NHS: Kidney cancer

European Association of Urology (EAU) Renal Cell Carcinoma guidelines: 3. Epidemiology, aetiology and pathology

Further reading: Action Kidney Cancer Essential guide: Kidney cancer – Renal cell carcinoma (RCC)

Updated: October 2023                                                                                                                      Next review: October 2025

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