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Is There a Link Between a Complex Kidney Cyst and Cancer?

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 5/31/2009

In most cases, a complex kidney cyst will remain benign. If not treated, however, the cyst could become cancerous. Learn more about these how this happens.

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    Kidney cysts are closed pockets of tissue, filled with fluid, that develop in the kidneys. Multiple cysts can develop, or a single cyst. Kidney cysts can develop more or less spontaneously with no underlying cause, or they may develop as a result of a condition such as polycystic kidney disease or multicystic kidney dysplasia. The development of so-called “simple" kidney cysts (those with no underlying genetic cause) becomes more common in older people: up to 30% of those aged 70 and over have one or more cysts.

    Complex kidney cysts are so-called because of their irregular shape. Another difference between simple and complex cysts is that complex kidney cysts often have “enhanced" tissue, meaning that within the cyst, there is tissue that has access to a blood supply.

    Most of the time simple cysts are asymptomatic and are not harmful. Sometimes, they may cause pain if cysts enlarge to the point where they encroach on other organs. In other cases they may become infected or may bleed. It is rare for simple kidney cysts to cause any reduction in kidney function. However, there is a link between simple kidney cysts and high blood pressure, although it is unknown whether the link is a causative link or simply correlation.

    Because kidney cysts are usually asymptomatic, it is common for them to remain undiagnosed. Most of the time, cysts are only found when a person undergoes a CT scan or ultrasound for another unrelated condition. No treatment is needed for kidney cysts that are present without causing any complications.

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    Kidney Cysts and Cancer

    There are several risk factors that can increase the likelihood that someone will develop kidney cancer. A number of inherited diseases can increase the risk of kidney cancer, including Von Hippel-Lindau disease, tuberous sclerosis, and Birt-Hogg-Dube Syndrome.

    Other risk factors include a high fat diet, high blood pressure, obesity, cigarette smoking, and occupational chemical exposure to substances such as organic solvents, cadmium, and asbestos.

    People with simple kidney cysts don’t have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer. However, complex kidney cysts do have a small risk of becoming cancerous. Complex cysts are graded on the basis of CT scan appearance, and are monitored for changes that might indicate the development of cancer.