Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. It's most often used for advanced kidney cancer. The aim is to control the cancer and help relieve any symptoms the cancer might be causing.
The type of radiotherapy most commonly used for kidney cancer is external beam radiotherapy. This means that the treatment is given by a machine from outside your body.
When you might have radiotherapy for kidney cancer
Kidney cancer is less sensitive to radiotherapy than some other types of cancer, so your doctor may recommend other treatments instead. However, radiotherapy can still be helpful in some situations.
You might have radiotherapy to:
- control the growth of kidney cancer if you can’t have surgery
- help relieve symptoms such as pain or blood in your urine
- treat cancer that has spread away from the kidney, such as in the lungs, brain or bones
- help relieve symptoms of cancer that has spread away from the kidney
Having radiotherapy for kidney cancer
You may have a single treatment or treatments over a number of days or weeks. This depends on:
- where the cancer is
- what the aim of the treatment is
- what dose (fraction) of radiotherapy is being given
There are different types of external radiotherapy, such as intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and image guided radiotherapy (IGRT). But the experience of having these are very similar.
Another type of external radiotherapy is stereotactic radiotherapy. This means you have radiotherapy from many different angles around the body. The radiation beams all meet where the cancer is. This means the cancer receives a high dose of radiation and the tissues around it receive a much lower dose. This lowers the risk of side effects.
You might have stereotactic radiotherapy for kidney cancer that has spread to the brain or lungs.
The radiotherapy room
Radiotherapy machines are very big and could make you feel nervous when you see them for the first time. The machine might be fixed in one position. Or it might rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.
Before your first treatment, your
During the treatment
You need to lie very still. Your radiographers might take images (x-rays or scans) before your treatment to make sure that you're in the right position. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You won’t feel anything when you have the treatment.
Your radiographers can see and hear you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They can talk to you over an intercom and might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. You can also talk to them through the intercom or raise your hand if you need to stop or if you're uncomfortable.
You won't be radioactive
This type of radiotherapy won't make you radioactive. It's safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.
Possible side effects
People react to radiotherapy in different ways. Side effects also depend on which part of the body is being treated. You might not have many side effects. Radiotherapy to help control symptoms usually only causes mild side effects. Talk to your doctor or radiographer about any side effects that you do get.
Side effects can include:
You might feel tired during your treatment. It tends to get worse as the treatment goes on. You might also feel weak and lack energy. Rest when you need to.
Tiredness can carry on for some weeks after the treatment has ended. But it usually improves gradually.
Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, such as exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It's 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 dietitian at the hospital.
Radiotherapy to the tummy (abdomen) or pelvic area can cause diarrhoea. Taking a medicine to slow down your bowel or changing your diet can help to reduce diarrhoea. Your radiotherapy team or dietitian will give you information about this.
Drink plenty of fluids and let your doctor know if you have frequent diarrhoea.
Sometimes the skin in the treatment area gets red and sore – a bit like mild sunburn. Your radiotherapy team will tell you how to look after your skin.
You may lose some body hair in the treatment area. This may grow back a few weeks after treatment finishes. But it doesn’t always. Your doctor will talk to you about this before you start treatment.
Radiotherapy can cause many different side effects, such as tiredness. The side effects you get will depend on the area you're having treatment to, but there are some general side effects you might experience regardless of where your cancer is. This video is about the general side effects you might have.
On screen text: Tiredness and weakness
Martin (Radiographer): As the normal cells repair themselves from the treatment this can use a lot of the body's resources, causing tiredness.
David: After about four weeks, I started to get tired. The body was starting to weaken.
Laurel: I was tired, day and night. Getting up in the morning was like a chore. I couldn't talk for 5 minutes. I would just sleep and just sleep and just wake up and sleep again.
Martin (Radiographer): Listen to your body. Take rests if you need to. Try not to overdo things.
Laurel: Don't fight with yourself too much. Just like go at a pace and just work with your body. If you can't make it today, you can't make it today.
David: You've got to rest. You have to take the time to rest.
Mary: Just going for them small walks. They really do help you. And even if it is just walking around your house or just walking around the block.
Martin (Radiographer): Doing exercise can help with tiredness by helping you maintain energy levels.
Mary: Being outside, that's a big, massive thing as well because you're feeling the fatigue and I think getting outside, just getting a bit of fresh air that really, really did help me.
Martin (Radiographer): The tiredness you can expect to begin within the first few weeks of treatment. Once it reaches its peak, about two weeks after treatment it recovers quite quickly after that.
Mary: It's not forever. You're not going to be like this forever and I did have to tell myself that.
Laurel: Two months after treatment, I start to feel less tired and that was a way forward because things start to really improve.
On screen text:
- Rest and have short naps when you need to
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat a balanced diet
- Do some gentle exercise
- Get some fresh air
On screen text: Sore skin
Martin (Radiographer): The radiotherapy can cause soreness of the skin. This only affects the area that you are having treated. This usually starts to appear about two weeks after you start treatment. You may notice this becoming more red and may become more itchy and sore as treatment continues.
David: After about ten days I started to get red on the area that they were targeting and it just progressively got redder and redder.
Laurel: My skin was dry and at the back was just like this triangle shape thing where it was like, okay, I'm a woman of colour, but it was really, really black.
David: Wasn't too painful, it was sort of annoying, rather than painful.
Martin (Radiographer): After treatment’s finished, the skin will remain sore for up to two weeks, but then recovers quite quickly.
Laurel: I haven’t got no scarring now at all.
David: It was maybe three or four weeks and then all the blemishes disappeared front and back.
Martin (Radiographer): When you start treatment we would advise you to carry on with your normal skincare routine but as the side effects develop, then your team will advise you on which products you can use on the skin safely.
Laurel: When I'm washing myself I use a sponge and you're just literally as it were just squirt it down, you don't rub the skin at all because it's already damaged. Pat dry, don't rub.
David: I spoke to the hospital about it and it was them that recommended this cream to put on, just to alleviate the symptoms.
Martin (Radiographer): We'd recommend wearing loose clothing and keeping the treatment area covered up against the sun and wind.
Laurel: I had to change most of my wardrobe. I only wore cotton.
David: Wearing T-shirts, soft clothing, nothing that would rub.
Mary: It's important when you go outside to make sure that you do wear that headscarf, or you do wear a hat or whatever it is.
Laurel: I wouldn't go in the sun at all, at all because my skin was - I know it was too delicate.
On screen text:
- Don’t rub the area, press if it is itchy and dab your skin dry
- Don’t use perfume, perfumed soaps or lotions on the area
- Don’t shave the area
- Only use creams or dressings advised by your specialist or radiographer
- Wear loose fitting clothing
- Avoid strong sun or cold winds
- Make sure you wear sunscreen
On screen text: Hair loss
Martin (Radiographer): Radiotherapy can cause hair loss in the area that's being treated, whereas chemotherapy can cause hair loss all over the body.
Mary: 2 to 3 weeks after the radiotherapy, I was brushing my hair and loads came out on the brush. I knew it was going to happen, but it was just hard when it happened.
Martin (Radiographer): In most cases the hair will grow back. This can take a couple of months and the hair may have a slightly different colour or texture.
Mary: Mine did grow back and there's a lot of grey in it so I have to dye it. This is not my original colour. It's very slow growing back.
Martin (Radiographer): Use a simple soap to clean the area. Be gentle with the skin in that area and after washing pat the area dry with a soft towel.
On screen text:
- Radiotherapy can make hair fall out in the treatment area
- It won’t cause hair to fall out in other parts of your body
- Your hair might grow back a few weeks after treatment ends
- If your hair won’t grow back, then your doctor should tell you
- Don’t use perfume, perfumed soaps, or lotions on the area
On screen text: Your mental health
Laurel: I felt frustrated. Some days were really, really challenging where there were just tears without words.
Mary: It's a mixture of emotions. You feel angry and you feel frustrated. You lose your confidence.
Martin (Radiographer): Radiotherapy can cause a lot of emotions at various times during the treatment. You may feel sad or anxious or depressed, which is quite normal. It's good to talk to people about your experiences, whether that's your team at the hospital or friends and family.
David: I couldn't praise the team highly enough. Everybody that was involved were unbelievable and if it hadn't been for them, I just don't think I would have gotten through with it.
Mary: I did have a nurse as well and she had the experience of dealing with people that went through brain surgery, went through radiotherapy so it was just great that I could reach out.
Martin (Radiographer): Your team will be able to give you information about local patient support services that are available, that includes things like counselling and complementary therapies.
Laurel: A referral from the hospital counselling, which I attended for about a year.
Martin (Radiographer): There's also lots of support available online and in your local area.
Mary: I went on loads of different forums and I spoke to loads of different people and it really, really helped me. If I didn't do that, I don't think I would have got through most days.
Laurel: If you get a bit cranky or feel a bit low, go for it. But there's so much help out there and that's why I'm pushing forward like don't sit down in silence. It's the same thing, just get the help you need.
On screen text:
- There is help available – ask the hospital for support
- Talk to your friends and family about how you are feeling
- Ask about local support groups
- Your GP or hospital can provide counselling
- You can get help and support online through forums
If you're experiencing a side effect that hasn't been covered in this video, you can find more information on the Cancer Research UK website.
On screen text: For more information go to: cruk.org/radiotherapy/side-effects
Travelling to radiotherapy appointments
You might have to travel a long way each day for your radiotherapy. This depends on where your nearest cancer centre is. This can make you very tired, especially if you have side effects from the treatment.
You can ask the
Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. Ask the radiotherapy staff if you are able to get free parking or discounted parking. They may be able to give you tips on free places to park nearby.
Hospital transport may be available if you have no other way to get to the hospital. But it might not always be at convenient times. It is usually for people who struggle to use public transport or have any other illnesses or disabilities. You might need to arrange hospital transport yourself.
Some people are able to claim back a refund for healthcare travel costs. This is based on the type of appointment and whether you claim certain benefits. Ask the radiotherapy staff for more information about this and hospital transport.
Some hospitals have their own drivers and local charities might offer hospital transport. So do ask if any help is available in your area.