Radiotherapy for advanced kidney cancer

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 therapy radiographers Open a glossary item will explain what you will 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 while you have treatment.

Photo of a linear accelerator

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.

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 therapy radiographers Open a glossary item for an appointment time to suit you. They will do their best, but some departments might be very busy. Some radiotherapy departments are open from 7 am till 9 pm.

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.

Your specialist nurse (CNS) or GP surgery may be able to tell you what transport options there are near you. They may also be able to help you arrange them.

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