Radiation Therapy for Kidney Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. The type of radiation sometimes used to treat kidney cancer, known as external beam therapy, focuses radiation from a source outside the body on the cancer.

Kidney cancers are not very sensitive to radiation. Radiation therapy can sometimes be used to treat kidney cancer if a person is not healthy enough to have surgery, although other treatments might be tried first instead.

Radiation therapy is more often used to palliate, or ease, symptoms of kidney cancer such as pain, bleeding, or problems caused by cancer spread (especially to the bones or brain).

The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is much stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Before your treatments start, the medical team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. 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 therapy known as stereotactic radiosurgery can sometimes be used for single tumors in the brain. This does not actually involve surgery. There are 2 main techniques for stereotactic radiosurgery, but they both use the same principle of pinpoint radiation. In one technique, many thin beams of radiation are focused on the tumor from different angles over a few minutes to hours. The second technique uses a movable linear accelerator (a machine that produces x-ray beams) that is controlled by a computer. Instead of delivering many beams at once, the linear accelerator moves around to deliver radiation to the tumor from different angles. In either approach, the patient’s head is kept in the same position by placing it in a rigid frame. This type of treatment can also be used for areas of cancer spread outside of the brain. When it is used to treat cancer elsewhere, it is called stereotactic body radiotherapy.

Possible side effects

Side effects of radiation therapy depend on where it is aimed and can include skin changes (similar to sunburn) and hair loss where the radiation passes through the skin, nausea, diarrhea, or tiredness. Often these go away after a short while. Radiation may also make side effects from some other treatments worse.

Radiation therapy to the chest area can damage the lungs and might lead to shortness of breath.

Side effects of radiation to the brain usually become most serious 1 or 2 years after treatment and can include headaches and trouble thinking.

For more general information, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website or A Guide to Radiation Therapy.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: February 24, 2014 Last Revised: May 16, 2016

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