What Is Papillary Renal Cell Carcinoma?

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Papillary renal cell carcinoma is a type of kidney cancer.

The kidneys are two small organs that work to remove waste products from the blood. Papillary renal cell carcinoma forms in the cells that line the small tubes in the kidney, known as renal tubules. These tubes filter waste from the blood and make urine. 

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer, and papillary renal cell carcinoma makes up about 15% of those cases.

A papillary tumor usually looks like a long, thin growth. There are two types of papillary renal cell carcinoma.

This article will provide an overview of the causes and symptoms of papillary renal cell carcinoma. It will also discuss diagnostic tests and treatment options.

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Types of Papillary Renal Cell Carcinoma

There are two types of papillary renal cell carcinoma, and their prognoses are quite different. 

  • Type 1: This type of cancer tends to grow slowly and is less likely to spread than type 2. People who have been diagnosed with hereditary papillary renal cancer are more at risk of developing type 1.
  • Type 2: This type of cancer tends to spread more quickly than type 1. People with hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell cancer are at higher risk of developing type 2.

Papillary Renal Cell Carcinoma Symptoms

Not everyone with papillary renal cell carcinoma experiences any symptoms. However, it is possible that you may notice the following signs and symptoms:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Low back pain (flank pain)
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • A lump in the side of the abdomen
  • Swelling in the veins around the testicle (varicocele
  • Excessive hair growth in women 
  • Pale skin
  • Vision changes
  • Liver changes
  • Elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (blood test)

Causes

Papillary renal cell carcinoma usually occurs randomly and does not have a known cause. This is called sporadic papillary renal cell carcinoma. 

While rare, it is possible for papillary renal cell carcinoma to run in families. Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma is a genetic disorder caused by a mutation in the MET gene. This mutation raises your risk of developing type 1 papillary renal cell carcinoma.

Risk Factors

Known risk factors for papillary renal cell carcinoma include: 

Diagnosis

The diagnostic process for identifying papillary renal cell carcinoma will include a physical exam, thorough medical history, laboratory tests, and imaging studies.

If your doctor suspects kidney cancer, they will likely start the diagnostic process by ordering an imaging test such as:

Lab tests used may include:

Once a tumor has been identified, your doctor will obtain a biopsy of it by inserting a needle into the tumor and taking cells to study under a microscope. This sample will show which type of kidney cancer you have.

Determining Spread

Tests used to determine spread or metastasis include:

Treatment

Treatment for papillary renal cell carcinoma usually starts with surgery to remove part or all of the kidney. This procedure is known as a nephrectomy. Surgery is the most common treatment option for early-stage kidney cancers.

Radiation therapy may then be recommended to kill cancer cells in the area of the tumor. Your doctor may recommend radiation therapy after surgery to ensure that all cancer cells have been killed.

Chemotherapy is currently not indicated in the treatment of papillary renal cell carcinoma.

Medications

The following medications have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat papillary renal cell carcinoma:

  • Nexavar (sorafenib): Treats advanced renal cell carcinoma
  • Proleukin (aldesleukin): Approved for adults over age 18 with metastatic renal cell carcinoma
  • Torisel (temsirolimus): Treats advanced renal cell carcinoma

Prognosis 

The prognosis for papillary renal cell carcinoma is unique to every individual and depends on how advanced the cancer is and whether or not it has spread to other areas of the body. 

The prognosis for type 1 papillary renal cell carcinoma is believed to be better than for type 2. This is because type 2 carcinoma is a more aggressive form of cancer that spreads quickly.

Possible complications of papillary renal cell carcinoma include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High red blood cell count
  • High calcium levels in the blood
  • Liver and spleen problems
  • Metastasis

Coping

Once you learn that you have cancer, finding a support network will be an important aspect of your treatment. Talk with your medical team about options such as a support group or online community. 

The following organizations may be able to help:

Summary 

Papillary renal cell carcinoma is a type of kidney cancer that starts in the small tubes in the kidneys known as renal tubules. The tumors appear as finger-like projections in the tubules. Common symptoms include blood in the urine, pain, and feeling a mass in your side. Papillary renal cell carcinoma is usually treated with surgery and possibly radiation therapy as well. 

A Word From Verywell

Learning that you may have papillary renal cell carcinoma is an overwhelming and frightening experience. It may be helpful to remember that help is available.

See your doctor as soon as you develop any new symptoms such as blood in the urine or pain in your side. Early diagnosis is critical to treating papillary renal cell carcinoma.

Once you have been diagnosed, reach out to a support group or online community to receive the support you and your loved ones need.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is papillary renal cell carcinoma curable?

    Papillary renal cell carcinoma is treatable, and the earlier it is found, the more positive the prognosis is. The five-year survival rate for localized kidney cancer that has not spread is 93%. The overall five-year survival rate is 75%. 

  • Does papillary renal cell carcinoma require chemo?

    No, chemotherapy is usually not recommended for this type of kidney cancer. Treatment usually includes surgery, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy drugs. 

  • What are the signs of papillary renal cell carcinoma?

    Possible signs and symptoms of papillary renal cell carcinoma include: 

    • Blood in the urine
    • Low back pain (flank pain)
    • Abdominal pain or swelling
    • Unintended weight loss
    • Fatigue
    • Fever
    • A lump in the side of the abdomen
    • Swelling in the veins around the testicle (varicocele) 
    • Excessive hair growth in women 
    • Pale skin
    • Vision changes 
    • Liver changes 
    • Elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (blood test)
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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Pan H, Ye L, Zhu Q, Yang Z, Hu M. The effect of the papillary renal cell carcinoma subtype on oncological outcomes. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):21073. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-78174-9

  3. MedlinePlus. Renal cell carcinoma. Updated October 8, 2021. 

  4. National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Papillary renal cell carcinoma.

  5. American Cancer Society. Survival rates for kidney cancer. Updated January 29, 2021.