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Can I Get Checked for Kidney Cancer Before I Have Symptoms?

Technician preparing patient for a CT scan

For the average person, screening for kidney cancer is not usually recommended. Doctors cannot feel small kidney tumors during routine physical exams because your kidneys are deep inside your body. There is no urine or blood test available to test for kidney cancer. Tumors often become quite large before they cause pain or other symptoms. For these reasons, a doctor often finds kidney cancer during later stages. In fact, it is often found while a person is being checked for other reasons.

You may benefit from screening, however, if you have one of the following conditions:

  • You have a strong family history of kidney cancer.

  • You have von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease.

If you have a family history of kidney cancer or VHL disease, talk with your doctor about screening. There are no standard guidelines for how often you should be screened if you are at risk. Your doctor will recommend a screening schedule based on your overall health and risk factors. Here are some ways your doctor may screen you for kidney cancer:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan. This test uses X-rays to scan your abdomen to check for tumors.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. This test uses the images created by radio waves and special magnets to check for tumors. 

  • Ultrasound. This test uses high frequency sound waves to scan your abdomen for tumors.

If the imaging scans do not clearly show whether there is cancer, a biopsy is necessary to diagnose kidney cancer. During this procedure, called a fine needle aspiration biopsy, the doctor inserts a long, thin needle through the skin and into the kidney. A sample of kidney tissue is removed through this needle. A special doctor, called a pathologist, examines the sample under a microscope for signs of cancer.