Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are given into a vein (IV) or taken by mouth (as pills). These drugs enter your blood and reach nearly all areas of the body, which makes this treatment potentially useful for cancer that has spread (metastasized) to organs beyond the kidney.
Because kidney cancer cells usually do not respond well to chemo, chemo is not a standard treatment for kidney cancer. Some chemo drugs, such as cisplatin, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), and gemcitabine have been shown to help a small number of patients. Still, chemo is often only used for kidney cancer after targeted drugs and/or immunotherapy have already been tried.
Doctors give chemotherapy in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Chemo cycles generally last a few weeks.
Chemo drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they often work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made), the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemo, which can lead to certain side effects.
The side effects of chemo depend on the type of drugs, the amount taken, and the length of treatment. Possible side effects can include:
These side effects usually go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to prevent or lessen them. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. Specific chemo drugs may each cause specific side effects. Ask your health care team about the side effects your chemo drugs may cause.
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Atkins MB. UpToDate. Overview of the treatment of renal cell carcinoma; This topic last updated: Aug 26, 2019. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-the-treatment-of-renal-cell-carcinoma on November 12, 2019.
Correa AF, Lane BR, Rini BI, Uzzo RG. Ch 66 - Cancer of the kidney. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Renal Cell Cancer Treatment – Health Professional Version. 2019. https://www.cancer.gov/types/kidney/hp/kidney-treatment-pdq. Updated September 6, 2019. Accessed on November 12, 2019.
Last Revised: February 3, 2020