Patients with Stage I renal cell cancer have a primary cancer that is less than 7 centimeters in size (about 3 inches). The cancer is limited to the kidney, and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Patients with Stage I renal cell cancer are curable with surgical removal of the cancer. Partial nephrectomy, which is removal of only the cancer and a small border of normal tissue, is the standard treatment for the smallest renal cancer (less than 4 centimeters in diameter). Depending on the size of the cancer and the function of the second kidney, some surgeons may recommend radical nephrectomy, or removal of the entire kidney. However, partial nephrectomy appears to be as effective as radical nephrectomy and preserves kidney function.

The following is a general overview of conventional and investigative treatments for Stage I renal cancer. Investigative treatments that may be available through clinical trials are discussed in the section titled Strategies to Improve Treatment.

Circumstances unique to each patient’s situation influence which treatment or treatments are utilized. The potential benefits of combination treatment, participation in a clinical trial, or standard treatment must be carefully balanced with the potential risks. The information on this Web site is intended to help educate patients about their treatment options and to facilitate a mutual or shared decision-making process with their treating cancer physician.

Surgery for Early Stage Renal Cancer

Results of clinical trials have shown that 75-96% of patients with Stage I renal cancers are curable with surgery alone.1

Partial nephrectomy (nephron-sparing surgery): Removing only the cancer and some surrounding healthy tissue—a procedure called a partial nephrectomy—is now considered the standard of care for the treatment of small renal cancers. The benefits of this approach are shorter hospitalization and recovery time and, importantly, kidney function is preserved, which is particularly valuable for patients who already have poor function or only one kidney. Preserving the affected kidney is also valuable in the event that the cancer should recur in the opposite (contralateral) kidney.

The benefits and safety of this approach have been repeatedly demonstrated in the treatment of patients with Stage T1a renal cancer, which is defined a cancer that is less than 4 centimeters in diameter.23

Partial nephrectomy also appears to be a viable treatment option for patients with Stage T1b cancers (which are 4-7 centimeters in diameter) if an adequate amount of normal tissue surrounding the cancer can be removed.4 Patients with these slightly larger Stage I cancers who are treated with partial nephrectomy have been shown to live as long and experience a similar cancer-free duration as patients treated with radical nephrectomy.5 However, longer follow up aimed at confirming these findings is ongoing.

For those patients with Stage T1b cancer that is more centrally located or those with multiple tumors, radical nephrectomy may be a better option.

To learn more, go to Surgery for Renal Cancer.

Strategies to Improve Treatment of Stage I Renal Cell Cancer

The development of more effective cancer treatments requires that new and innovative therapies be evaluated with cancer patients. Clinical trials are studies that evaluate the effectiveness of new drugs or treatment strategies. Future progress in the treatment of renal cell cancer will result from the continued evaluation of new treatments in clinical trials.

Patients may gain access to better treatments by participating in a clinical trial. Participation in a clinical trial also contributes to the cancer community’s understanding of optimal cancer care and may lead to better standard treatments. Patients who are interested in participating in a clinical trial should discuss the risks and benefits of clinical trials with their physician. Areas of active investigation aimed at improving the treatment of Stage I renal cell cancer include the following:

Laparoscopic surgery: Laparoscopic surgery is a technique that is less extensive and invasive than traditional, open surgery. During a laparoscopic surgery for renal cancer, the surgeon makes small, one-centimeter incisions in the abdomen and side. The surgeon then inserts a very small tube that holds a video camera, which creates a live picture of the inside of the patient’s body. This picture is continually displayed on a television screen, so that surgeons can perform the entire surgery by watching the screen.

Both radical nephrectomy and partial nephrectomy may be conducted using laproscopy. In the case of a radical nephrectomy, the incision is enlarged to allow passage of the kidney. A small bulk of tissue is removed with a partial nephrectomy and the incision can remain small.

Laparoscopic radical nephrectomy has emerged as an alternative to open surgery in the management of smaller (less than 8 centimeters in diameter), localized renal cancers. Patients treated with the laparoscopic approach do not appear to be at greater risk for cancer recurrence 5-10 years after treatment compared to patients treated open radical nephrectomy. The two approaches have also been shown to result in similar survival.6 However, patients who are candidates for laparoscopic radical nephrectomy would also do well with partial nephrectomy. Thus the advantages of laparoscopic radical nephrectomy (shorter hospital stay and faster recovery) must be balanced with the advantage of partial nephrectomy, which is better long term renal function.7

Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy appears to provide outcomes comparable to conventional open partial nephrectomy. Results of a clinical trial involving 100 patients with an average cancer size of 3.1 cm who underwent laparoscopic surgery showed that all patients survived three and one-half years or more after treatment without evidence of cancer recurrence.8 Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy is a specialized technique and should only be conducted by a surgeon who is experienced in this procedure.

Radiofrequency ablation: Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive technique that uses heat to destroy cancer cells. During radiofrequency ablation, an electrode is placed directly into the cancer under the guidance of a CT scan, ultrasound, or laparoscopy. The electrode emits high-frequency radio waves, creating intense heat that destroys the cancer cells.

Radiofrequency ablation appears to be a promising technique for the treatment of patients with small kidney cancers (less than 4 centimeters in diameter) who are ineligible for surgery. Clinical trial results indicate that two years after surgery, cancer recurrence occurred in fewer than 10% of patients. Larger tumors (more than 3 centimeters) are more challenging to treat with this approach and are more prone to recurrence afterwards.9

Cryoablation: Cryoablation is a minimally invasive technique that uses extremely cold temperatures to “freeze” small cancers. In patients with cancer that is less than or equal to 5.0 cm in diameter, cryoablation appears to be a promising approach for removing the cancer. However, long-term research is necessary to confirm the benefits of cryoablation.10


1 Lam JS, Shvarts O, Pantuck AJ. Changing concepts in the surgical management of renal cell carcinoma. European Urology. 2004;45:692-705.

2 Joniau S, Vander Eeckt K, Van Poppel H. The indications for partial nephrectomy in the treatment of renal cell carcinoma. Nature Clinical Practice Urology. 2006;3(4):198-205.

3 Becker F, Siemer S, Humke U, et al. Elective nephron sparing surgery should become standard treatment for small unilateral renal cell carcinoma: Long-term survival data of 216 patients. European Urology. 2006;49(2):308-13.

4Leibovich BC, Blute ML, Cheville JC, et al. Nephron sparing surgery for appropriately selected renal cell carcinoma between 4 and 7 cm results in outcome similar to radical nephrectomy. Journal of Urology. 2004;171(3):1066-70.

5 Dash A, Vickers AJ, Schachter LR, et al. Comparison of outcomes in elective partial vs radical nephrectomy for clear cell renal cell carcinoma of 4-7 cm. British Journal of Urology International. 2006;97(5):939-45.

6 Permpongkosol S, Chan DY, Link RE, et al. Long-term survival analysis after laparoscopic radical nephrectomy. Journal of Urology. 2005;174:1222-1225.

7 Matin SF, Gill IS, Worley S, et al. Outcome of laparoscopic radical and open partial nephrectomy for the sporadic 4 cm. or less renal tumor with a normal contralateral kidney. Journal of Urology. 2002;168(4 Pt 1):1356-9.

8Moinzadeh A, Gill IS, Finelli A, et al. Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy: 3-year followup. Journal of Urology. 2006;175(2):459-62.

9 Varkarakis IO, Allaf ME, Takeshi I, et al. Percutaneous radio frequency ablation of renal masses: results at a 2-year mean followup. Journal of Urology. 2005;174:456-460.

10 Schwartz BF, Rewcastle JC, Powell T, et al. Cryoablation of small peripheral renal masses: a retrospective analysis. Urology. 2006;68(1):14-8.

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