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Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) or particles to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. It is sometimes used as the main treatment for kidney cancer in patients who can’t have surgery, although other treatments might be tried first instead. Radiation can also be used to ease symptoms such as pain, bleeding, or problems caused by the cancer spreading.

Treatment is often given 5 days a week for several weeks. Each treatment is a lot like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is much stronger. The treatment itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer.

A special type of radiation treatment known as stereotactic radiosurgery can sometimes be used for single tumors in the brain or elsewhere. Very thin beams of radiation are aimed at the tumor from many different angles. This treatment does not actually involve surgery.

Side effects of radiation depend on where it’s aimed and can include hair loss and mild skin changes (like sunburn) where the radiation passes through the skin, nausea, diarrhea, or tiredness. Often these go away after a short while. Radiation can also make the side effects of chemotherapy worse. Radiation to the chest can damage the lungs and might lead to shortness of breath. Side effects of radiation to the brain usually become most serious one or 2 years after treatment and can include headaches and trouble thinking.

To learn more, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website or Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 04/29/2014
Last Revised: 02/10/2016