Genetic mutations that increase a person’s risk of kidney cancer can pass from a biological parent to a child. However, in most cases, a person will not inherit kidney cancer. It is often difficult to determine the cause of the disease.

All cancers occur due to changes or mutations in genes, with most genetic changes happening during a person’s life.

However, some people with kidney cancer inherit a gene mutation from a biological parent, meaning they have hereditary kidney cancer. These forms of the disease tend to be more aggressive and difficult to diagnose than noninherited kidney cancers.

Kidney cancer is fairly common, making up over 3% of all adult cancers. However, only around 5–8% of kidney cancers are inherited. Hereditary kidney cancer often occurs as part of a hereditary syndrome.

This article will explain what kidney cancer is and discuss its causes and risk factors. It will also outline inherited syndromes that increase the chances of developing the disease.

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In most kidney cancer cases, cancerous cells form in tiny tubules in the kidney. A 2021 review explains that there are three main types of kidney cancer:

  • renal cell carcinomas, which make up 90% of kidney cancers
  • transitional cell carcinomas of the renal pelvis
  • renal sarcoma

The kidneys are organs with numerous important functions. Alongside removing toxins and excess liquids from the blood, they help maintain healthy blood acidity levels and a typical electrolyte balance.

When a person has kidney cancer, their kidney cells grow in an uncontrolled and atypical way. This can affect how these organs work.

Learn about the different types of kidney cancer.

Kidney cancer develops from genetic mutations within kidney cells. Most mutations occur during a person’s lifetime, and doctors call them acquired mutations. Certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing this disease, but most mutations have no identifiable cause.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), around 5–8% of kidney cancers are hereditary or due to an inherited genetic mutation.

Some genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, involve a mutation in a tumor suppressor gene, which is responsible for preventing cells from growing out of control. When a tumor suppressor gene mutates, it can no longer perform its role, and kidney cancer is more likely to develop.

Genetic mutations that cause kidney cancer may develop for several reasons. A 2018 study details some important risk factors for the disease:

When people smoke tobacco, the lungs absorb cancer-causing chemicals, which enter the bloodstream. When the kidneys filter this blood, these chemicals become concentrated and damage the cells of these organs, which may lead to cancer.

Obesity can also cause hormone imbalances in the body. This may affect how certain hormones work to control tissue growth in the body, including the kidneys.

When someone has hereditary kidney cancer, they may also have a hereditary syndrome, which increases the risk of such cancers.

As the NCI explains, a hereditary syndrome is a collection of symptoms or conditions due to genetic mutations that biological parents can pass on to a child.

Hereditary syndromes that make kidney cancer more likely include:

  • VHL
  • hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell cancer
  • Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome
  • hereditary papillary renal cancer

The NCI also explains that hereditary and noninherited kidney cancers differ in the following ways:

  • Doctors tend to diagnose hereditary kidney cancers earlier than acquired kidney cancers.
  • Certain hereditary kidney cancers can be more or less aggressive than acquired kidney cancer.
  • Treatments for hereditary and noninherited kidney cancers may differ.
  • People with hereditary kidney cancer may have a higher risk of developing other types of cancers.

Not everyone who inherits the genetic indicator for kidney cancer will develop the disease.

And while it is not possible to prevent kidney cancer, if a person has concerns about their genetic risk of the disease, they may be eligible for genetic counseling and testing.

Genetic counseling involves consultation between an individual and a specially trained genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can help a person understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of genetic testing, which involves finding out their risk of hereditary kidney cancer.

Genetic testing can involve analyzing samples of saliva, blood, or skin.

Certain signs might make a doctor believe a person has a hereditary syndrome. They may recommend genetic counseling and testing if they have multiple family members with kidney cancer and any of the following criteria:

  • being of a younger age at diagnosis
  • having multiple tumors in one kidney or tumors in both kidneys
  • having a type of kidney cancer that people commonly inherit

The National Kidney Foundation suggests the following ways a person can help reduce their risk of kidney cancer:

  • avoiding smoking
  • maintaining a moderate body weight
  • avoiding toxins, such as cadmium, asbestos, and trichloroethylene
  • avoiding prolonged use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • controlling high blood pressure
  • controlling blood sugar, particularly in people with diabetes
  • being aware of their family medical history

As a 2021 review explains, it is possible to cure kidney cancer in its early stages by surgically removing tumors. When a person’s kidney cancer is incurable, doctors can help slow the progression of this disease and limit its symptoms.

The 5-year survival rate for kidney cancer is around 75%, meaning that 75% of people are still alive 5 years after their diagnosis.

It is worth noting that some hereditary kidney cancers are more aggressive than acquired types. This may make the disease progress faster and present more challenging symptoms.

Learn more about the outlook for kidney cancer.

All kidney cancers develop due to changes, or mutations, in the genes within kidney cells. While some mutations pass down from a biological parent to a child, most mutations occur during a person’s life.

Hereditary kidney cancer is most likely to affect people with certain hereditary syndromes. If multiple members of a person’s family have kidney cancer, a doctor may recommend genetic counseling and testing to assess an individual’s risk.

Avoiding smoking and toxins and maintaining a moderate body weight may help prevent kidney cancers in people without hereditary kidney cancer syndrome.