Kidney Cancer: Radiation Therapy
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Kidney Cancer: Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a treatment for cancer than uses rays of energy. A large machine sends the rays of energy through your skin to the tumor. The energy kills cancer cells. Kidney cancer is not very sensitive to radiation therapy. Other methods for treating kidney cancer work better.

When might radiation therapy be used for kidney cancer?

This treatment may be used if one or more of the below applies to you:

  • You’re not healthy enough to have surgery.

  • The cancer is not responding to other treatments.

  • Your kidney cancer has spread to your brain or bones.

  • You have pain caused by cancer that has spread to the bone (called bone metastasis).

  • You have pain caused by cancer that has spread to a location that's not responding to treatment or no other treatment can be used there.

Radiation can be used along with certain medicines to help stabilize a bone that's weakened by cancer cells and may be at risk of breaking.

Deciding on a radiation treatment plan

You will work with a radiation oncologist to make a radiation treatment plan. This is a healthcare provider who specializes in both cancer and radiation. This healthcare provider decides:

  • The goal of radiation therapy

  • The type of radiation you need

  • The dose you need

  • How long you need treatment

It may help to bring a family member or friend with you to appointments. Make a list of questions and concerns you want to talk about. During your visit, ask what the goal of radiation therapy is and what you can expect to feel like during and after treatment.

What to expect during radiation therapy

Radiation is most often given once a day, 5 days a week, for a certain number of weeks. You get it in a clinic and go home after each treatment.

Radiation treatment is a lot like getting an X-ray. You may hear it called external radiation therapy. The radiation comes from a large machine. The machine doesn't touch you during the treatment. The treatments don't hurt and they are quick.

Before you start treatment, imaging scans will be done to measure the exact location and size of the tumor so the beams of radiation can be focused there. Tiny tattoos may be put on your skin to mark the treatment area. This is done to be sure that the radiation goes to the exact same spot every time so it reaches only the tumor, and not healthy parts of your body.

On the day of treatment, you're carefully put into the right position. Molds or casts may be made to hold you in the same position for each treatment and keep you from moving. You may see lights from the machine lined up with the marks on your skin. These help the therapist know the radiation is going to the right spot. The therapist will leave the room while the machine sends radiation to your tumor. During this time, he or she can see you, hear you, and talk to you. When the machine sends radiation to your tumor, you'll need to be very still, but you don't have to hold your breath. The process will likely take less than an hour.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Talk with your healthcare provider about what you might feel like during and after radiation therapy. All cancer treatments have side effects. Side effects often get worse as treatment goes on, but can be treated. Side effects often get better or go away over time after treatment ends. Common side effects of radiation therapy include: 

  • Skin in the treated area becomes irritated, dry, red, and blistered like a sunburn

  • Hair loss in the area being treated

  • Feeling tired or weak

  • Nausea or diarrhea

Side effects depend on the part of your body that's being treated. Talk with your healthcare provider about what side effects you can expect and what can be done to prevent or ease them. Ask your healthcare provider what symptoms to watch out for. Ask when you should call your healthcare team. For instance, your healthcare provider may want you to call if you have signs of infection, such as fever or pain that gets worse.

Some long-term side effects of radiation may not show up for many years after you finish treatment. These depend on the dose and location of the radiation. Ask your healthcare provider what you may expect.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.