What is upper tract urothelial cancer (UTUC)?

Upper tract urothelial cancer, or UTUC, is a cancer that happens in the lining of the kidneys or ureters. It’s called upper tract because the kidneys and the ureters are the upper part of the urinary tract.

Your urologist might call this type of cancer by other names, such as

  • Cancer of the upper urinary tract
  • Upper tract urothelial carcinoma
  • Kidney cancer
  • Renal pelvis cancer
  • Ureteral cancer
  • Urinary tract cancer
  • Upper tract cancer
  • Cancer in the lining of the kidney

For more information about UTUC, visit the About the urinary tract and Understanding UTUC pages.

What is urothelial cancer?

Urothelial cancer is cancer that happens in the urinary tract. Your doctor might call it urinary tract cancer or urothelial carcinoma. The word urothelial (uro-THEE-lee-uhl) is used because these types of cancer happen in the tissue on the inside of the urinary tract. That tissue is called the urothelium (uro-THEE-lee-um), and it lines the inside of all 4 major parts of the urinary tract.

For more information about urothelial cancer, visit the About the urinary tract page.

How do people get UTUC?

It’s hard to know exactly what causes UTUC, but there are several things that could increase your chances:

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Age

Most people diagnosed with UTUC are between 70 and 90 years old

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Smoking

Increases your risk of any cancer, including UTUC

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Chemicals

Exposure typically happens in the workplace

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Medical history

Having other types of cancer in the past or an inherited syndrome like Lynch syndrome

Is UTUC dangerous?

Like all cancers, UTUC is a serious disease. And if it's not treated, it can cause serious problems—like kidney disease, spreading to other parts of your body, and potentially even death. To understand how dangerous UTUC is, it’s important to find out the grade and stage of the cancer.

To learn more about grade and stage, visit the Understanding UTUC page or the Glossary of key terms.

How can UTUC be treated?

There are several ways to treat UTUC. The right treatment depends on how dangerous the cancer is.

Low grade

This type of UTUC is usually not too dangerous. It's not very aggressive and is slow to spread to other parts of the body. But it's still important to get it treated to avoid serious kidney damage. There are several different ways to treat it. Click here to learn about a nonsurgical treatment option for low-grade UTUC.

High grade

This type of UTUC is usually more dangerous. It can be aggressive and might spread to other parts of your urinary tract or other parts of your body. There is only one good way to treat high-grade UTUC—surgery.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about choosing a treatment. To see what questions to ask, visit the Talking to your doctor page.

What do words like grade and stage mean?

The grade of your UTUC depends on how aggressive the cancer is. There are 2 grades of UTUC: low grade and high grade. Low grade is usually not very aggressive and is slow to spread. High grade is more dangerous. It can be aggressive and could spread to other parts of your urinary tract or other parts of your body.

The stage of your UTUC depends on how deep into your kidney or ureter your cancer has grown. The stage of your cancer could be anywhere from 0 to 4. It can be hard to know what stage UTUC is, and your urologist might not always be able to tell.

For more information about grade and stage, visit the Understanding UTUC page.

How do I find out what grade and stage my UTUC is?

Talk to your urologist. The results of your biopsy should give your urologist more information about the grade and stage of your UTUC.

What can I expect if I need to have surgery to remove my UTUC?

There are a lot of important things to think about before you have surgery, even if it’s a minor operation. Visit the Getting treated page for information about what surgery could mean for you.

Are there any medications that I can take for UTUC?

Right now, there's one treatment approved by the FDA to treat UTUC, and new treatments for cancer are always being studied.

To see what new treatments are being tested for urinary tract cancers, visit the list of clinical studies on the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) website or the National Library of Medicine's study registry.