Radiation Therapy for Kidney Cancer
Kidney or renal cancer is often treated with surgery. It can also be treated with chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. In some cases, radiation is used as part of the treatment plan. Kidney cancer is usually radioresistant, or not very sensitive to radiation. This means that other treatments tend to work better than radiation.
Radiation therapy can be used for:
- Patients that are not healthy enough for surgery.
- Patients that only have one kidney.
- Manage symptoms like bleeding or pain.
- Decrease the risk of the cancer coming back in the same place after surgery.
- Other parts of the body where kidney cancer may have spread (metastases).
If radiation is used to treat your kidney cancer it will likely be external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). EBRT gives radiation from outside your body and focuses it on the cancer. If radiation is being used to treat cancer that has spread outside the kidney then a special type of EBRT is often used, called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT).
What should I expect before treatment?
Before starting radiation therapy, you will have an initial consultation (meeting) with your radiation oncologist to decide if radiation is right for you and to review the treatment consent. If you plan to have radiation, you will have a CT simulation. During the simulation, you will be placed in the position you will be in for your treatments and pictures will be taken of the inside of your body. Immobilization devices (materials that help you stay still during treatment) along with tattoos are often used to get you in the exact same position for each treatment.
After the CT simulation, a treatment plan will be made for you. During the treatment planning process, your radiation oncologist will decide how many treatments you will receive and how often. There are many people on your radiation care team, some you will meet, and others stay behind the scenes.
What side effects should I expect during treatment?
Radiation is used to destroy cancer cells but can also hurt normal cells in the treated area. The damage to these normal cells is the cause of the common side effects of radiation treatment. You will likely see your radiation treatment team once a week while you are receiving treatments. This visit gives you a chance to ask questions, talk about side effects, and learn about ways to help manage the side effects. If you start having a new or worsening side effect, you should call your treatment team. Each patient is different so you may not have all the possible side effects.
Side effects from radiation are cumulative, meaning the more treatments you have, the higher your risk of side effects. The possible side effects of radiation therapy are also directly related to the area of the body that is being treated. Also, most patients do not have any side effects until a few weeks into their treatment. Some side effects last a short period of time and go away a few weeks after treatment is done and others are more long-term.
Short-Term Side Effects
Some of the most common short-term side effects of radiation therapy for kidney cancer are:
- Skin irritation: The skin in the treatment area may become red, irritated, dry, or sensitive. This may start to look like a sunburn. Treat the skin gently to avoid further irritation, and bathe carefully, using only warm water and mild soap. Do not use perfumed or scented lotions or soaps, and avoid sun exposure, as these may worsen irritation.
- Fatigue: Fatigue is feeling very tired or exhausted. This is very common and tends to begin a few weeks into treatment. Fatigue often gets better slowly over the weeks and months after treatment.
- Alopecia (Hair Loss): This can happen in the area where you received radiation. Hair often starts to regrow a month or so after treatment. However, your hair might not grow back exactly as it was before treatment and for some, the hair loss is permanent.
- Nausea and/or vomiting: Nausea is when you feel sick to your stomach and may even be vomiting. This is common and may start during or right after treatment and last for several weeks after treatment ends. If you feel sick or are vomiting, let your care team know so they can help you manage this side effect.
Long-Term Side Effects
Long-term effects can happen months to many years after cancer treatment and the risks depend on the area of the body being treated. They can also depend on the radiation techniques that are used. Some of the long-term side effects of radiation to the kidney are:
- Damage to the kidney.
- Bowel problems.
- Liver damage.
- Damage to the spleen.
- Skin changes.
- Secondary Cancer.
A more detailed guide to these late effects of radiation for kidney cancer can be found in our survivorship section: Survivorship: Late Effects After Radiation for Kidney Cancer.
There are ways to treat many of these side effects, including medications and therapy. After treatment, talk with your oncology team about receiving a survivorship care plan, which can help you manage the transition to survivorship and learn about life after cancer. You can create your own survivorship care plan using the OncoLife Survivorship Care Plan.
Interested in learning more about what your radiation therapy will look like? We have a video that explains what to expect during your radiation therapy that can help answer your questions.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). (2019). Kidney Cancer: Types of Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/kidney-cancer/types-treatment.
The American Cancer Society. (2020). Treatment of Kidney Cancer by Stage. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/kidney-cancer/treating/by-stage.html.