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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. They rotate around you to give you your treatment. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

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

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

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

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

If you have no other way to get to the hospital, the radiotherapy staff might be able to arrange hospital transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. To see if you're eligible they usually work it out based on your earnings or income.

Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Last reviewed: 
17 Jan 2019
  • Renal Cell Carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines
    European Society of Medical Oncology, 2016

  • Role of Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy for the Management of Oligometastatic Renal Cell Carcinoma.

    C Franzese and others 

    The Journal of Urology 2019 201(1):70-75.

  • TROG 15.03 phase II clinical trial of Focal Ablative STereotactic Radiosurgery for Cancers of the Kidney - FASTRACK II

    S Siva and others 

    BMC Cancer 2018 23;18(1):1030

  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) on renal cell carcinoma, an overview of technical aspects, biological rationale and current literature

    G Francolini and others 

    Critical Reviews in Oncology and Haematology 2018 131:24-29.

  • Radiotherapy combined with zoledronate can reduce skeletal-related events in renal cell carcinoma patients with bone metastasis

    S Hosaka and others 

    International Journal of Clinical Oncology 2018 23(6):1127-1133

  • Utilization of Stereotactic Radiosurgery for Renal Cell Carcinoma Brain Metastases

    W Haque and others 

    Clinical Genitourinary Cancer 2018 16(4):e935-e943

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