Some evidence suggests there may be a link between kidney stones and cancer. However, the evidence is limited, and more research is needed.

Kidney stones develop when hard deposits of calcium form masses in the kidneys. Cancer develops due to the overgrowth of cells that do not die at the usual point in their life cycle. The direct causes of kidney cancer are unclear, even though cancer and kidney stones may share a link.

This article further discusses the research on kidney stones and cancer.

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Several studies and reviews have examined the possible connection between kidney stones and cancer.

A 2018 study using data from over 120,000 participants looked at the potential association of kidney stones and two different kidney cancer types: renal cell carcinoma (RCC) and upper tract urothelial carcinoma (UTUC).

The researchers concluded that people with kidney stones may have a higher relative risk of developing RCC than those without. However, they found no significant connection between kidney stones and UTUC risk. The study also found that those who received a kidney stone diagnosis at under 40 years of age had a higher risk of both types of cancer.

An earlier study from 2015 found a similar link between kidney stones and RCC risk, but only in participants who were assigned male at birth. This study also showed that people of both sexes with kidney stones had a higher risk of a type of cancer called transitional cell carcinoma.

Not all research supports this link. A 2018 review suggests that previous research may only show a link between a history of kidney stones and cancer risk due to skewed research and unreliable data collection methods.

How do kidney stones increase cancer risk?

More research is necessary to understand exactly whether kidney stones may increase cancer risk.

However, a 2022 review suggested that kidney stones can increase levels of inflammation across the body. In turn, this can lead to hyperplasia in the kidneys. Hyperplasia is cell overgrowth that can develop into cancer. According to a 2019 review, ongoing inflammation can damage cell DNA and contribute to changes that may lead to cancer.

Kidney stones and kidney cancer cause different symptoms.

Kidney stones

Kidney stones can be intensely painful. Symptoms might include:

  • severe pain in the groin, lower abdomen, side, or back
  • blood in the urine that may be red, brown, or pink, also known as hematuria
  • pain while passing urine
  • feeling an urgent and constant need to pass urine
  • inability to pass any or much urine
  • cloudy urine
  • urine with a foul odor
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • chills

Read more about the kidney stone symptoms.

Kidney cancer symptoms

Early kidney cancer may not cause any symptoms. As kidney cancer progresses, it may cause:

  • hematuria
  • lower back pain
  • a lump in the side or back
  • unexpected weight loss
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • sweating at night

Kidney cancer and kidney stones develop due to different causes. However, they may share risk factors, such as obesity or family history of the condition.

Causes of kidney stones

The urine usually contains low levels of three minerals:

  • calcium
  • oxalate
  • phosphorus

Kidney stones may develop if levels of these minerals become too high. There are four types of kidney stones, each with different possible causes:

  • Calcium oxalate: These are the most common kidney stones. They can occur due to low levels of calcium and fluids in the diet.
  • Uric acid: This is also common and might develop in response to a high intake of compounds called purines. Organ meats and shellfish provide a high volume of purines. People may also inherit the risk of uric acid kidney stones through genetics.
  • Struvite: These are rare and occur due to urinary tract infections (UTIs).
  • Cystine: These are rare and often have genetic causes.

Other causes might include:

  • not drinking enough water
  • exercising too much
  • not exercising enough
  • having obesity
  • having had surgery for weight loss
  • eating foods high in salt and sugar
  • eating foods high in fructose, a form of sugar common in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup

Kidney cancer causes

The direct cause of kidney cancer is unclear. However, several factors may increase a person’s risk of kidney cancer, including:

  • having received dialysis for kidney disease, which can make kidney cancer five times more likely, according to the National Kidney Foundation
  • taking medications to suppress the immune system following a kidney transplant
  • smoking
  • having obesity
  • having high blood pressure, or hypertension
  • having family members with kidney cancer
  • using a pain relief drug called phenacetin over a long period
  • having certain rare genetic conditions, including von Hippel-Lindau disease and Birt Hogge Dube syndrome

People who were assigned male at birth may be more likely to develop kidney cancer than those assigned female.

Read more about causes of kidney cancer.

It is possible to misdiagnose kidney cancer as kidney stones due to several shared symptoms, including hematuria and lower back pain.

According to a 2018 survey by the charity Kidney Cancer UK, 45% of survey participants who sought a diagnosis received treatment for an unrelated illness before a doctor made the correct diagnosis. One of the most common misdiagnoses was kidney stones.

Kidney stones diagnosis

When diagnosing kidney stones, a healthcare professional may ask about medical history, family history, and eating habits.

They may also perform one or more lab tests to identify high levels of kidney-stone-linked minerals. This may include urine testing to check for the presence of blood, excess minerals, white blood cells, or bacteria. Blood tests can also help confirm high levels of phosphorus, oxalate, and calcium.

Imaging tests, including CT scans and X-rays, can help find the kidney stone. This may also help identify possible causes, such as blockages.

Kidney cancer diagnosis

As an often symptom-free disease, kidney cancer typically shows up only during abdominal scans for other conditions.

Similar to kidney stones, doctors request blood tests and imaging tests to identify kidney cancer. They may order MRI, ultrasound, or CT scans. Unlike with many other cancers, healthcare professionals do not often collect and examine a biopsy for kidney cancer.

Kidney stones and kidney cancer require different treatments. Kidney stone treatment generally involves breaking down or removing the stone. Kidney cancer treatment is more intensive and may involve the surgical removal of a whole kidney.

Kidney stones treatment

A healthcare professional may use one of several methods to remove a kidney stone or make it easier to pass. These include:

  • Shock wave lithotripsy: This involves using shock waves to break up the stone, which then passes in the urine.
  • Cystoscopy and ureteroscopy: A doctor inserts a thin, flexible, lighted camera into the kidneys via the urethra to find the stone before breaking it up or removing it.
  • Percutaneous nephrolithotomy: A doctor inserts a tool called a nephroscope into the kidneys through the individual’s back. This allows them to locate and break up or remove the stone.

Kidney cancer treatment

To treat kidney cancer, a healthcare professional removes either the tumor or the whole kidney. Sometimes, they may also remove nearby tissues and lymph nodes, depending on the risk of cancer spreading. This treatment is often successful in people with stage 1–3 kidney cancer.

People who are not good candidates for surgery might receive a thermal ablation. This involves burning or freezing off a small tumor.

To treat advanced kidney cancer, a doctor may prescribe immunotherapy drugs that instruct the immune system to attack cancer cells. These include monoclonal antibodies or checkpoint inhibitors. Anti-angiogenic medications can stop the blood supply to the tumor, preventing or slowing further growth.

Learn more about kidney cancer treatment.

Evidence to suggest a link between kidney stones and cancer is lacking. However, several studies suggest that a history of kidney stones or diagnosis of kidney stones before age 40 years may have links to a higher risk of developing some types of kidney cancer.

Kidney stones and kidney cancer share several symptoms, including lower back pain and blood in the urine. For this reason, doctors can misdiagnose kidney cancer as kidney stones.