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Chemotherapy for Kidney Cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are given into a vein (IV) or taken by mouth (as pills). These drugs enter your bloodstream 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.

When is chemotherapy used for kidney cancer?

The most common types of kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma, or RCC), such as clear cell RCC, typically don’t respond well to chemo, so it’s not usually part of the treatment for these cancers. Targeted drugs and immunotherapy are the most common treatments for most advanced kidney cancers.

However, chemo can be helpful for some less common types of RCC, including collecting duct RCC and renal medullary carcinoma. Usually, a platinum drug (cisplatin or carboplatin) is combined with either gemcitabine or paclitaxel to treat these cancers. These drugs are given by infusion into a vein (IV).

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.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo drugs can also affect other cells in the body, which can lead to certain side effects.

The side effects of chemo depend on the which drugs are given, the doses used, and the length of treatment. Possible side effects of chemo can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased chance of infections (due to low white blood cell counts)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (due to low blood platelet counts)
  • Fatigue (feeling tired due to low red blood cell counts)

These side effects usually go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to prevent or lessen them. For example, medicine can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Some chemo drugs can also cause other side effects. For example, drugs like cisplatin, carboplatin, and paclitaxel can damage nerves. This can sometimes lead to symptoms (mainly in the hands and feet) such as pain, burning or tingling, sensitivity to cold or heat, or weakness. This is called peripheral neuropathy.

Ask your health care team about the side effects your chemo drugs may cause.

More information about chemotherapy

For more general information about how chemotherapy is used to treat cancer, see Chemotherapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

 

Choueiri TK, Pal SK. The treatment of advanced non-clear cell renal carcinoma. UpToDate. 2023. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-treatment-of-advanced-non-clear-cell-renal-carcinoma on December 15, 2023.

McNamara MA, Zhang T, Harrison MR, George DJ. Ch 79 - Cancer of the kidney. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier: 2020.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Kidney Cancer. V1.2024. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/kidney.pdf on December 15, 2023.

 

Last Revised: May 1, 2024

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