Controlling the symptoms of kidney cancer
This page is about controlling the symptoms of advanced kidney cancer. There is information about
Controlling the symptoms of kidney cancer
If you have advanced kidney cancer it may not be possible to cure it. Advanced kidney cancer means the cancer has spread beyond the kidney or has come back after treatment.
Even if your cancer can’t be cured, treatment is available to control your symptoms. Treatments such as biological therapy can shrink the cancer and slow it down, which can reduce symptoms. Surgery can also reduce symptoms by removing areas of cancer in the kidney or other parts of the body that are causing pain.
Choosing your treatment
Which treatment is best for you depends on your individual situation. You and your doctor will take the final decisions together after discussing all the options. It can be difficult to decide which treatment to try, or whether to have treatment at all. You may want to think about your quality of life while you are having the treatment. Most importantly, you will need to understand what can be achieved with the treatment you are being offered.
Other ways of controlling symptoms
Medicines are available to treat most symptoms such as pain, sickness, diarrhoea and constipation. Some people find complementary therapies such as massage and relaxation may help too.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating kidney cancer section.
If you have advanced kidney cancer it may not be possible to cure it. Advanced kidney cancer means the cancer has
- Spread to another part of the body from where it started in the kidney, or
- Come back some time after you were first treated
Kidney cancer can spread into organs close to the kidney, such as the bowel or liver. It can also spread to the bones, lungs, brain or the other kidney.
Although kidney cancer that has spread can't usually be cured, some treatments can keep the cancer under control for some time and reduce symptoms.
These treatments include the following
Biological therapies can often keep the cancer under control and stop it growing for some months or sometimes years. These treatments include drugs such as
- Sunitinib (Sutent)
- Sorafenib (Nexavar)
- Pazopanib (Votrient)
- Bevacizumab (Avastin)
- Interferon (Roferon A)
- Temsirolimus (Torisel)
- Everolimus (Afinitor)
You can read about biological therapy for advanced kidney cancer in this section.
Surgery is sometimes possible for secondary kidney cancers. If the cancer has come back in the area of the kidney or has spread to only one other area, it may be possible to remove it.
There is quite a bit of research evidence to show that removing a cancerous kidney, for example, can control symptoms and help people to live longer even if it won't cure the cancer. Kidney cancers can produce chemicals that circulate round the body and cause symptoms, such as high temperatures (fever), weakness, muscle pain or nerve problems.
Treating the tumour reduces the amount of these chemicals that the cancer makes. So it can help to control the symptoms. As kidney cancer can be inactive at times, taking out a secondary cancer may temporarily stop the growth of the cancer and help you to stay well for longer.
There is information about surgery for advanced kidney cancer.
Cryotherapy (also called cryosurgery or cryoablation) is a way of killing cancer cells by freezing them. Doctors put a freezing probe into the cancer through the skin. Your doctor may suggest it on an area of cancer that is less than 4cm across. You can have the treatment again if you need to.
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat made by radio waves to kill cancer cells. Radiofrequency is a type of electrical energy. The electrical energy heats up the tumour and kills the cancer cells. This treatment is only available in specialist cancer centres. It can help to shrink a cancer and control symptoms. Your surgeon may suggest it if you have a small area of cancer in the kidney or in the liver.
Radiotherapy can shrink advanced kidney cancers and reduce symptoms such as bleeding into the urine or pain. Shrinking lung secondaries may help relieve breathlessness.
A procedure called arterial embolisation can help to shrink kidney cancers and control symptoms. The doctor injects small pieces of foam or gelatine beads into the main artery leading to the area where the cancer is. This cuts off the blood supply to the tumour. The tumour can shrink and this relieves symptoms such as pain and bleeding. This procedure can also treat secondary tumours in the liver.
In some people with advanced kidney cancer a hormone therapy called medroxyprogesterone (Provera) can shrink the cancer and control symptoms. But it is not commonly used now because the biological therapies tend to work better. It can also cause side effects such as weight gain, water retention, indigestion and sleeplessness.
Which treatment is best for you depends on
- The size of the cancer and where it is
- Where the cancer has spread to
- The treatment you have already had
- Your general health
If you have only one area of cancer spread, it may be best to use a local treatment, such as surgery or radiotherapy. If the cancer is in more than one area, biological therapy is a better option. When considering surgery, your doctor will need to think about your general health and how easy it will be for you to recover.
If you've had a certain type of treatment before, it may not help to repeat it. With radiotherapy, it is not usually possible to give more radiotherapy to an area that has already been treated. These are the sorts of things your doctor has to take into account. But you and your doctor will take the final decisions together after you have discussed all the options.
It can be difficult to decide which treatment to try, or whether to have treatment at all when you have an advanced cancer. You may want to think about your quality of life while you are having the treatment. This includes side effects, as well as stresses such as travelling back and forth to the hospital. Most importantly, you will need to understand what can be achieved with the treatment you are being offered.
It can be helpful to talk over difficult decisions with someone outside your circle of family and friends. You can contact the Cancer Research UK nurses to talk through your situation in confidence on 0808 800 4040. Or you could contact a counselling organisation to find out about counselling and how to find a counsellor in your area.
If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.
There are many different painkillers and ways of taking them. With the help of your doctor or specialist nurse, it should be possible for you to be pain free most of the time. It may not be possible to ensure you are completely pain free when you are moving around, but you should be when you are resting.
You and your family can learn to help combat pain yourselves, for example with relaxation or breathing exercises. We have a section about cancer and pain control, which you may find helpful.
Sickness can be helped with medicines. There are several different types of anti sickness medicine, and which one you need depends on what is causing your sickness. It will help your doctor or symptom control nurse if you are able to tell them what relieves your sickness and what seems to make it worse.
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