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Cancer - renal pelvis or ureter



Cancer of the renal pelvis or ureter is cancer that forms in the pelvis or the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder.

Alternative Names

Transitional cell cancer of the renal pelvis or ureter


Cancer can grow in the urine collection system, but is uncommon. As a group, renal pelvis and ureter cancers account for no more than 5% of all cancers of the kidney and upper urinary tract. They affect men more often than women and are more common in people older than 65.

Tumors of the renal pelvis and ureter are usually transitional cell cancers. Approximately 10% are squamous cell carcinomas.

The causes of this cancer are not completely known. Long-term (chronic) irritation of the kidney from harmful substances removed in the urine may be a factor. This irritation may be caused by:

  • Analgesic nephropathy
  • Exposure to certain dyes and chemicals used to manufacture leather goods, textiles, plastics, and rubber
  • Smoking

Patients with a history of bladder cancer are also at risk.

Signs and tests

A physician will examine the abdomen by touch. Rarely is there a lump (mass) or enlarged kidney. The patient may have blood in the urine. A complete blood count (CBC) may show anemia.

Cancer cells may appear on the following tests:

The tumor, or signs of urinary obstruction, may appear on:

An x-ray, CT scan, or MRI of other areas of the body may show that the cancer has spread from the kidneys.

Support Groups

For additional information and resources, see cancer support groups.

Expectations (prognosis)

The outcome varies depending on the location of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread. Cancer that is only in the kidney or ureter can be cured with surgery.

Cancer that has spread to other organs is usually not curable. However, there are exceptions.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have the symptoms listed above.

  • Kidney failure
  • Local spread of the tumor with increasing pain
  • Spread of the cancer

The goal of treatment is to eliminate the cancer.

Surgery to remove all or part of the kidney (nephrectomy) is usually recommended. This may include removing part of the bladder and tissues around it, or the lymph nodes. If the tumor is in the ureter, it may be possible to remove it while preserving the kidney.

When the cancer has spread outside of the kidney or ureter, chemotherapy is often used. Because these tumors are similar to a form of bladder cancer, they are treated with a similar type of chemotherapy.

  • Follow your health care provider's advice regarding medications, including over-the-counter pain medicine.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Wear protective equipment if you may be exposed to substances that are toxic to the kidneys.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Bladder Cancer, including Upper Tract Tumors and Urothelial Carcinoma of the Prostate. 2008; version 2.

Review Date: 6/10/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and James R. Mason, MD, Oncologist, Director, Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program and Stem Cell Processing Lab, Scripps Clinic, Torrey Pines, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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