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Radiation Therapy for Kidney Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells.

When is radiation therapy used for kidney cancer?

Radiation therapy isn’t usually the first treatment for kidney cancer. But it might be an option if:

  • The cancer is still only in the kidney, but a person isn’t healthy enough for (or doesn’t want to have) surgery or has only one kidney. Sometimes other ablative treatments might be tried before radiation.
  • The cancer has spread, but there are no more than a few tumors in other parts of the body. Radiation might be an option to try to destroy these tumors, although other treatments, such as surgery or other ablative techniques, might be options as well.
  • The cancer returns after treatment, especially if it has spread more widely. In this situation, radiation might be an option to help relieve (palliate) symptoms caused by tumors in some parts of the body, such as the brain or bones. This type of treatment is known as palliative radiation therapy.

How is radiation therapy given?

When radiation therapy is used to treat kidney cancer, a special machine is used to create and focus beams of radiation at the tumor. This type of treatment is known as external beam radiation therapy (EBRT).

Each treatment is much like getting an x-ray, although the radiation dose is stronger. The treatment itself is painless and typically lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time — getting you into place for treatment — takes longer.

When treating a tumor in the kidney or a small area of cancer spread (such as a single tumor in a lung), radiation is usually given as stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), also known as stereotactic ablative body radiotherapy (SABR).

For this advanced type of EBRT, imaging tests are used to guide the delivery of thin beams of radiation to a precise area, such as a kidney tumor, from many different angles. Large doses of radiation can be given in each dose, so the entire course of treatment can often be given in just a few days.

SBRT is often known by the names of the machines that deliver the radiation, such as Gamma Knife, X-Knife, CyberKnife, or Clinac.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

Side effects of radiation therapy might include:

  • Skin changes (similar to sunburn) and hair loss where the radiation passes through the skin
  • Nausea or diarrhea (when radiation is aimed at the abdomen)
  • Feeling tired

Other side effects are also possible, depending on where the radiation is aimed.

Most side effects go away shortly after treatment is finished, but some might last longer.

Radiation may also make side effects from some other treatments worse.

If you’re getting radiation, ask a member of your cancer care team what side effects to expect.

More information about radiation therapy

To learn more about how radiation is used to treat cancer, see Radiation Therapy.

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.

Atkins MB. Overview of the treatment of renal cell carcinoma. UpToDate. 2023. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-the-treatment-of-renal-cell-carcinoma on December 13, 2023.

Correa RJM, Louie AV, Staehler M, et al. Stereotactic radiotherapy as a treatment option for renal tumors in the solitary kidney: A multicenter analysis from the IROCK. J Urol. 2019;201:1097-1104.

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 13, 2023.

Last Revised: May 1, 2024

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