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Kidney Cancer: Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a treatment for cancer than uses rays of energy. A machine directs the rays of energy to the area of cancer. The energy kills cancer cells. Radiation therapy does not work as well as other methods for treating kidney cancer. But in some cases, it may be the preferred treatment.

When radiation therapy is used

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

  • You’re not healthy enough to have surgery

  • Your kidney cancer is not responding to other treatments

  • Your kidney cancer has spread to the brain or bones

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

It can also help stabilize a bone that is weakened by cancer cells and may be at risk of breaking. Medicine is also given to help increase bone density. This also helps protect it from breaking.

Deciding a radiation treatment plan

You will work with a radiation oncologist for your treatment plan. This is a doctor who specializes in both cancer and radiation. This doctor 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 during and after the treatment.

What to expect during radiation therapy

Radiation is often given once a day, 5 days a week, for a certain number of weeks. You will likely be able to go home the same day.

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

Before you start treatment, imaging scans will be done in the area of your cancer. This is done to measure the exact location of the tumor so the beams of radiation can be focused there. Small marks may be put on your skin to mark the treatment area. This ensures that the radiation reaches only the tumor, and not healthy parts of your body.

On the day of treatment, you are carefully put into the right position. You may see lights from the machine lined up with the marks on your skin. These help the therapist know you are in the right position. 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 will need to be very still, but you do not have to hold your breath. The process will likely take less than an hour.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Talk with your doctor 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. The side effects of radiation therapy include: 

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

  • Hair loss in only 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 doctor about what side effects you can expect and what can be done to prevent or ease them. Ask your doctor what symptoms to watch out for. In some cases, you should call your healthcare team. Your doctor 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. These also depend on how many times you had the treatment. Ask your doctor what you may expect.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 3/28/2015
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 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.
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