Kidney cancer

Graphic of kidney cancer statisticsHow diet, nutrition and physical activity affect kidney cancer risk. In total, we analysed 29 studies from around the world, comprising nearly 9.7 million adults and 15,039 cases of kidney cancer.

The kidneys are a pair of organs located at the back of the abdomen outside the peritoneal cavity. They filter waste products and water from the blood, producing urine, which empties into the bladder through the ureters. They are also important endocrine organs concerned with salt and water metabolism and maintaining blood pH, and they play a key role in vitamin D metabolism.

> Find the latest kidney cancer statistics

What causes kidney cancer?

Our Expert Panel has reviewed the evidence on diet, weight, physical activity and the risk of kidney cancer.

There is strong evidence that:

  • being overweight or obese INCREASES the risk of kidney cancer
  • being tall INCREASES the risk of kidney cancer (the taller a person is, the greater his or her risk of kidney cancer)
  • consuming alcoholic drinks DECREASES the risk of kidney cancer, when consuming up to 30 grams (about 2 drinks) a day. There is insufficient, specific evidence for higher levels of drinking – for example, 50 grams (about 3 drinks) or 70 grams (about 5 drinks) a day. It is also important to remember that there is strong evidence that alcohol is linked to an increased risk of six other cancers

There is some evidence that:

> See more graphics in our toolkit

> Download our 2018 kidney cancer report, with evidence matrices

Other causes of kidney cancer

In addition to the findings on diet, nutrition and physical activity outlined above, other established causes of kidney cancer include:


Smoking is a cause of kidney cancer. Current smokers have a 52% increased risk of kidney cancer, and ex-smokers a 25% increased risk, compared with those who have never smoked.


Painkillers containing phenacetin are known to cause cancer of the renal pelvis. Phenacetin is no longer used as an ingredient in painkillers.

Kidney disease

Polycystic kidney disease predisposes people to developing kidney cancer.


High blood pressure is associated with a higher risk of kidney cancer.

Emerging research on kidney cancer

We fund research on kidney cancer through our grant programme. Read about the latest findings and ongoing projects in our database of projects.

Pathogenesis: how does kidney cancer develop?

The kidneys filter blood and excrete metabolic waste products. These waste products include potential carcinogens, consumed as or derived from pharmaceuticals or foods and drinks, or through exposure from other environmental sources such as cigarette smoke. Some of these may play a role in kidney carcinogenesis.

Inherited genetic predisposition accounts for only a minority of kidney cancers. Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome is the most common, with up to 40% of those inheriting the mutated VHL tumour suppressor gene developing kidney cancer.

Tuberous sclerosis is less common and predisposes to multiple cancer types, kidney cysts and kidney cancer. About three-quarters of kidney cancers without a familial component are a clear cell type, of which about 60% have a mutation in the VHL gene. A further 12% of non-familial kidney cancers are papillary, which are less likely to metastasise.

Full references and a summary of the mechanisms underpinning all the findings can be found in the kidney cancer report.

Diet and Cancer Report 2018

In 2018, World Cancer Research Fund International published Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective on behalf of AICR, WCRF and WKOF. This was the third in our series of major reports looking at the many ways in which our diets, and how active we are, affect our cancer risk. You can find out much more about bladder cancer by downloading a pdf of the relevant chapter in the 2018 report. Please note, however, that this webpage may have been updated since the report was published.

Published findings in peer-reviewed journals

Selected findings from this report have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Details of the papers and links to the abstract in PubMed are below:

WCRF-AICR continuous update project: Systematic literature review of prospective studies on circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D and kidney cancer risk. Darling AL, Abar L & Norat T. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2015. Abstract