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Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells. It is not often used to treat kidney cancer. 

Who has it

Radiotherapy is not often used for kidney cancer. This is because kidney cancer is less sensitive to radiation than some other types of cancer.

You might have radiotherapy to help control the symptoms of advanced cancer, such as pain or blood in the urine. Radiotherapy can shrink a larger cancer. This relieves pressure on nearby organs or nerves that may be causing pain.

It can also help with bone pain if the cancer has spread to your bones.

Kidney cancer that has spread to the brain

Doctors use radiotherapy to treat advanced kidney cancer that has spread to your brain. This can be very successful at controlling symptoms and slowing down the growth of the cancer.

If the cancer affects part of your brain

You will most likely have about 10 separate treatments (called fractions). You have this treatment daily, from Monday to Friday. The complete radiotherapy course takes 2 weeks.

If the cancer affects large areas of your brain

You might have whole brain radiotherapy. You may also have this if your doctor thinks that cancer cells could be there but are too small to show on a scan. You usually have this in about 5 treatments (fractions) over a week, or in 10 treatments over two weeks.

If the cancer affects only one area of your brain

You might have stereotactic radiotherapy. This type of treatment gives high doses of radiation to small areas of the brain. 

Stereotactic radiotherapy treatment has to be given very precisely. Only the area of the cancer receives the high doses of radiation. You may be fitted with a metal head frame or a plastic mesh mask. These make sure your head can't move while you are having the treatment.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and can be daunting at first. Some are fixed in one position, but others rotate around your body.  

Before you start treatment your radiographers explain what you'll see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

During the treatment

You need to lie very still. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You can't feel the radiotherapy when you have the treatment. 

Your radiographers watch and listen to you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. Tell them if you need to move or want the machine to stop.

You won't be radioactive

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It's safe to be with other people throughout your course of treatment.

Possible side effects

You might not have many side effects from your radiotherapy treatment. Side effects also depend on the area of your body being treated. 

Side effects that can occur include:

You are likely to feel very tired during your treatment. It tends to get worse as the treatment goes on. You might also feel weak and lack energy.

After a while you may need to sleep after each radiotherapy session. Rest when you need to.

Tiredness can carry on for some weeks after treatment has finished. But it usually improves very gradually.

Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.

Radiotherapy can cause sickness. It's usually mild. You may not have it at all.

If you feel sick, tell your doctor, radiographer or radiotherapy nurse. Your doctor should give you anti sickness tablets to take every day before your treatment.

Tell them if you still have sickness despite the tablets. You can try another type of anti sickness tablet. Some work better for some people than others.

If you don't feel like eating, you could try a high calorie food supplement drink. You can get these at most chemists or your doctor can prescribe them.

If you have problems with your diet, ask to see a dietician at the hospital.

Radiotherapy may cause diarrhoea. But you may not have it at all.

Diarrhoea can be helped with medicine to slow down your bowel or eating a low fibre diet. Your radiotherapy department may have leaflets to help you with this.

If you have frequent diarrhoea, drink plenty of fluids, and let your doctor know. 

Sometimes the skin in the treatment area gets red and sore – a bit like mild sunburn.

You may lose some body hair in the treatment area. 

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Tell the radiotherapy department staff if you prefer treatment at a particular time of day. They can try to arrange this.

Radiotherapy can make you tired, especially if you have a long journey. You could ask a family member or friend to drive you to the hospital a couple of times a week. 

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. It’s worth asking the radiotherapy unit staff:

  • if they can give you a hospital parking permit
  • about discounted parking rates
  • where you can get help with travel fares
  • for tips on free places to park nearby

The radiotherapy staff can usually help to arrange transport for you if you need it. Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.