When Your Child Has Wilms Tumor

October 07, 2017

When Your Child Has Wilms Tumor

Outline of small child showing lungs, kidneys, and ureters connecting kidneys to bladder.

Your child has been diagnosed with Wilms tumor. You are likely feeling shocked and scared. You are not alone. Support and treatment are available. Your child’s healthcare team will guide you through important decisions regarding your child’s health.

What is Wilms tumor?

Wilms tumor is a type of cancer that forms in the kidney. The kidneys are a pair of organs located on each side of the spine. They filter the blood of the waste and water that make up urine. Wilms tumor usually affects one kidney, but can affect both. The tumor can spread (metastasize) to another part of the body, such as the lungs.

Who gets Wilms tumor?

Children at any age can get Wilms tumor, but kids up to age 5 are affected most often. Wilms tumor is not contagious, meaning your child can’t pass it to another person. 

What causes Wilms tumor?

Wilms tumor occurs because abnormal cells grow in the kidney. These cells then form a tumor. What causes the abnormal growth of cells is not fully known. However, certain syndromes, conditions, and birth defects have been shown to increase a child’s risk of Wilms tumor. Your child’s healthcare provider may be able to tell you more.

What are the symptoms of Wilms tumor?

Some common symptoms of Wilms tumor include a lump in the stomach, pain and swelling in the stomach, and blood in the urine. Your child may have experienced some of these symptoms, or other symptoms.

How is Wilms tumor diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider examines your child. You will be asked about your child’s health history. Your child may also have one or more of the following:

  • Blood and urine tests to take samples of blood and urine to be tested.

  • Imaging tests to take detailed images of areas inside the body. These may include X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound.

  • Surgery to determine if the tumor is cancerous.


Staging and grading of Wilms tumor

Staging is the process that determines the size of the cancer and how much it has spread. Most cancers have their own staging system. Grading is used to describe how abnormal the cancer cells look when seen through a microscope. The more abnormal the cells are, the faster they grow. Staging and grading help the healthcare team plan treatment for your child. They also help determine the likelihood of cure (prognosis). The process used for Wilms tumor takes into consideration the following:

  • Location of the primary tumor

  • If the tumor has spilled into the stomach

  • If the cancer has spread to the other kidney or other areas of the body

  • How abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope

The cancer is also broken down into stages 1 through 5 (often written as I through V). The different stage numbers refer to the tumor’s size and if and where it has spread. For instance, stage I is an early stage of cancer. Stage V means the cancer has spread to both kidneys. Wilms tumor is also broken down into further classifications. Your child’s healthcare provider can tell you more if needed. Talk to the healthcare provider if you have any questions about the stage of your child’s cancer.

How is Wilms tumor treated?

The goal of treatment is to destroy cancer cells. The kind of treatment your child receives depends on the type and stage of tumor your child has. Your child may require one or more of these treatments:

  • Surgery to remove the affected kidney (nephrectomy) or to remove as much tumor as possible from the remaining kidney if one was removed.

  • Chemotherapy (“chemo”) to destroy cancer cells with powerful cancer-fighting medicines. Multiple chemo medicines may be used. They are given through a tube (IV) that’s usually put into a vein in the arm or chest. Or, they may be given by mouth or injection.

  • Radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells and shrink a tumor using high-energy X-rays. Radiation may be used before or after other treatments.

Supportive treatments

The goal of supportive treatments is to protect the child from infection, prevent discomfort, and bring the body’s blood counts to a healthy range. During your child’s treatment, he or she may be given antibiotics. These are medicines that help prevent and fight infection. Anti-nausea and other medicines may also be given. These help ease side effects caused by treatment. Your child may receive a blood transfusion to restore the blood cells destroyed by treatment. Blood is taken from a donor and stored until the child is ready to receive it.

What are the long-term concerns?

With early treatment, Wilms tumor is usually curable. But chemotherapy and radiation may cause some problems, such as damage to certain organs. So your child’s health will need to be monitored for life. This may include clinic visits, blood tests, imaging tests, and ultrasounds of the stomach and heart. Also, ask your healthcare team if your child will need to take special precautions to protect the remaining kidney, such as avoiding contact sports.


Receiving a cancer diagnosis for your child is scary and confusing. It’s important to remember that you are not alone. Your child’s healthcare team will help guide you throughout your child’s care. You should also seek information and support for yourself. Doing so helps you cope with the changes cancer brings. Learning about and talking with others who also have a child with cancer may help you and your family cope. Also, ask your child’s healthcare team for a list of resources.


October 07, 2017

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Image reviewed by StayWell medical illustration team.,Levy, Adam S., MD,Ziegler, Olivia, MS, PA