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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 could make you feel nervous when you see them for the first time. The machine might be fixed in one position or able to 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 on your back. 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

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 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 dietician 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 department staff 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.

You may lose some body hair in the treatment area. 

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

You might have to travel a long way each day for your radiotherapy, depending 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 7am till 9pm.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. You can ask the radiotherapy staff if they can give you a hospital parking permit for free parking or advice on discounted parking. They may be able to give you tips on free places to park nearby.

The radiotherapy staff may be able to arrange transport if you have no other way to get to the hospital. Your radiotherapy doctor would have to agree. This is because it is only for people that would struggle using public transport and have no access to a car. 

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.

Some hospitals have their own drivers and local charities might offer hospital transport. So do ask if any help is available in your area.

Last reviewed: 
28 May 2020
Next review due: 
28 May 2023
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