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Cancer and the Kidney (Onco-Nephrology)

The kidneys are the organs in our body that clear toxins out of the bloodstream. They do so by filtering the blood.

They also help:

  • Maintain our electrolytes.
  • Control our blood pressure.
  • Keep fluid levels where they should be.

How Does Cancer Affect the Kidneys?

Because the kidneys do so much for the body, they often find themselves affected by diseases occurring elsewhere, especially cancer.

Kidney cancer or cancer somewhere else in the body can affect your kidneys. Sometimes even cancer treatment can hurt your kidneys.

These include:

  • Raising your blood pressure.
  • Disrupting the balance of magnesium, potassium, and other electrolytes in your body.
  • Injuring your kidney acutely or causing long-term kidney disease.

Anyone having cancer treatment should have their doctor routinely check their kidney function.

If you have kidney disease and receive a cancer diagnosis of any kind, you should make an appointment with your kidney doctor.

What causes kidney problems in cancer patients?

If you have cancer and your kidneys aren't working as they should, your doctor will first look for a root cause.

The causes of kidney problems are complex and can include:

  • Dehydration. This is the most common cause of kidney damage during cancer treatment. Chemo or other cancer treatments often make you feel sick or tired. If you don't drink enough water or eat enough, it can lead to dehydration and kidney injury.
  • Extra waste in the blood. If you're going through cancer treatment and it's a success, the waste from the tumor often enters the bloodstream. Your kidneys have to work extra hard to filter that waste, which can lead to a short-term reduction in kidney function.
  • Drugs that treat cancer. Some cancer drugs can hurt the kidneys. You may need to switch medications or seek treatment for your kidney problems while you battle cancer.

Why choose UPMC for kidney care during cancer treatment?

At the UPMC Kidney Disease Center, our kidney experts:

  • Have deep knowledge of how cancer and cancer treatment affect the kidneys.
  • Partner with the world-renowned cancer doctors at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to provide complete care.
  • Work with you and your cancer doctor to find the cause of your kidney disease and reverse it or slow its progression.

The link between cancers, cancer treatment, and the kidney is very complex. Only at a large, historic cancer hospital like UPMC can you receive the focused care you need.

Cancer and the Kidney: Symptoms and Diagnosis

Even in people without cancer, kidney disease is often silent since it has few obvious symptoms.

For those with cancer, it can be even harder to detect kidney disease because cancer symptoms and treatment side effects may mask symptoms of kidney disease. 

Symptoms of kidney problems due to cancer

Most people with kidney disease won't notice any symptoms at all, especially at the early stages.

As the disease gets worse, you may notice some symptoms like:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Unusual fatigue.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Nausea and throwing up.
  • Swelling, mostly in the hands, ankles, and feet.
  • Noticeable changes in urine amount.
  • Blood in your pee.

If you have any of the symptoms above, talk to your cancer doctor.

Diagnosing kidney disease caused by cancer

Since most people don't notice the symptoms of kidney disease, your cancer doctor will test your kidney function routinely.

Tests include:

  • A blood pressure test.
  • Blood work.
  • Urine tests.
  • An ultrasound of your kidney.

If any of your results look strange, your cancer doctor will refer you to the UPMC Kidney Disease Center.

Our nephrologists have expertise in how cancer affects the kidney. We'll work with you to learn the cause of your kidney problems and help relieve them.

Treatment for Kidney Problems Due to Cancer

If you have cancer and kidney disease, you need a kidney doctor with vast knowledge of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.

At the UPMC Kidney Disease Center, treatment starts with finding the cause of your kidney disease.

But treatment goals may vary based on your specific needs and might include:

  • Treating the symptoms of kidney disease while you continue cancer treatment.
  • Changing your cancer treatment to ease kidney disease symptoms or reverse kidney damage.
  • Reversing kidney damage by treating the cause.

Types of cancer-related kidney disease treatments

Treating kidney disease caused by cancer is complex.

The experts at the UPMC Kidney Disease Center will help you design a treatment path that's right for you. We'll explain the treatments that will help you the most.

Lifestyle changes

For people with electrolyte issues caused by cancer treatment, lifestyle changes can sometimes be enough to improve your kidney health.

You'll work with your kidney doctor and a nutritionist to:

  • Improve your diet.
  • Increase your intake of fluids.
  • Avoid foods that might affect electrolyte levels.

Medicine to treat kidney disease caused by cancer

There's a range of drugs that can support your kidneys during cancer treatment.

Your doctor may prescribe medicine to:

  • Reduce swelling in the kidney.
  • Control your blood pressure.
  • Correct electrolyte imbalances.
  • Treat kidney disease symptoms to improve quality of life.


A sudden or acute kidney injury can cause it to have trouble cleaning waste from your blood. Your kidneys may need a little help from a dialysis machine.

Types of dialysis include:

  • Hemodialysis. Requiring three to four hours several times a week, you'll often go to a dialysis clinic for treatment. We can also help you set up for dialysis at home.
  • Peritoneal dialysis. This form of dialysis takes more time. It is performed at home while you sleep, every night.

Kidney transplant

In some cases, people who have kidney damage due to cancer may enter kidney failure or end-stage kidney disease. A transplant is often the preferred treatment for kidney failure when the cancer is in remission. 

We work closely with the renowned experts at the UPMC Kidney Transplant Program to provide this life-saving care. We will guide you through every step of the process, from evaluation to recovery.

Contact the UPMC Kidney Disease Center

To learn more about the relationship between cancer and kidney disease: