Kidney cancer is cancer that begins in the kidneys. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s one of the 10 most common cancers that impacts both men and women.

While chemotherapy can be used to treat many different types of cancer, it’s often not very effective for renal cell carcinoma (RCC), the most common type of kidney cancer. However, there are some kinds of kidney cancer for which it may be recommended.

Below, we’ll cover more about chemotherapy, when it’s used for kidney cancer, and what it involves. Keep reading to discover more.

One of the main characteristics of cancer cells is that they grow and divide quickly. Chemotherapy uses drugs that target cells which are rapidly growing and dividing. Because of this, it can kill cancer cells or slow their growth.

Most kidney cancers (about 90 percent) are a type of cancer called renal cell carcinoma (RCC). You may also see this type of kidney cancer referred to as renal cell cancer or renal cell adenocarcinoma.

Unlike many other types of cancer, cancer cells in RCC don’t respond very well to chemotherapy. Additionally, some chemo drugs are already associated with kidney and bladder problems as a potential side effect.

Because of this, doctors prefer other types of treatments for RCC. These include things like surgery, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.

While doctors don’t use chemotherapy to treat RCC, it can be effective for some other, less common, types of kidney cancer. These include:

  • Transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). TCC begins in the cells that line an area called the renal pelvis, which is where the kidneys and ureters meet. TCC cells typically resemble bladder cancer cells.
  • Collecting duct carcinoma (CDC). CDC is an aggressive type of kidney cancer that starts in the collecting ducts, which collect urine from the kidneys and move it to the ureters. It only causes up to 3 percent of all kidney cancers.
  • Renal medullary carcinoma (RMC). RMC mainly impacts individuals with sickle cell trait. It’s very rare, accounting for less than 0.5 percent of all kidney cancers, but is one of the most aggressive types of kidney cancer.
  • Wilms tumors. Wilms tumors, also called nephroblastoma, are a type of kidney cancer that almost always impacts children.
  • Malignant rhabdoid tumors (MRT). MRTs are a rare type of tumor made up of many large cells. The kidneys are a common area for them to develop. They’re most common in babies between the ages of 11 to 18 months.

There are some specific situations where doctors may use chemotherapy to treat RCC. This is typically when RCC is advanced and hasn’t responded to other types of treatment like immunotherapy or targeted therapy.

The type of chemotherapy drug you’ll receive for kidney cancer can depend on the specific type of cancer you have. Some types of chemo drugs that doctors may use to treat kidney cancer include:

It’s also common to receive chemotherapy as a combination of different chemo drugs. Combination chemotherapy can tackle cancer in multiple ways because different drugs work by different mechanisms.

One example of combination chemotherapy used to treat TCC and potentially other types of kidney cancer includes:

  • methotrexate
  • vinblastine
  • doxorubicin
  • cisplatin

Additionally, doctors may use chemotherapy with other treatment types. For example, chemotherapy is sometimes given before or after surgery.

Chemotherapy that’s used to shrink a tumor prior to surgery is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. When used to kill cancer cells that remain after surgery, it’s called adjuvant chemotherapy.

In addition to cancer cells, chemotherapy can also impact healthy cells that normally grow and divide more rapidly than other cell types. These include cells in the:

  • hair follicles
  • mouth and digestive tract
  • bone marrow

This means that chemotherapy can lead to a variety of side effects, such as:

Generally speaking, most of these side effects go away after you’ve finished your chemotherapy treatment.

Chemotherapy itself can also have long-lasting effects on your body. Some drugs are associated with long-term side effects that can last months, years, or for the rest of your life. Examples include:

Side effects vary from person to person and also depend on factors like the:

  • specific chemotherapy drugs used
  • dose of chemotherapy
  • length of your treatment

If your care team recommends chemotherapy for your kidney cancer, they can give you a better idea of what types of short- and long-term side effects to expect from chemo and how to manage them.

Chemotherapy is most often given by mouth in the form of a pill or capsule or into the bloodstream via IV.

If you’re getting chemotherapy through an IV, it’s possible that a catheter or port will be temporarily placed. This provides easier access to a large vein in your body while you’re receiving treatment.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles. Each cycle typically lasts a few weeks and is made up of a period of active treatment followed by a period of rest. The rest period allows healthy cells in your body to recover.

It’s also possible for chemotherapy to be either inpatient or outpatient. Inpatient means that you’ll need to stay overnight at the hospital, while outpatient means that you can return home following your treatment session.

The outlook for kidney cancer can depend on many factors, such as:

  • the specific type of kidney cancer
  • the extent, or stage, of the kidney cancer at the time of diagnosis
  • how the cancer responds to the recommended treatment
  • your age and overall health

According to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER program, the overall 5-year survival for kidney cancer is 75.6 percent. This statistic can also be broken down further based on how far the cancer has spread:

  • Localized. The 5-year survival rate for cancer that remains confined to the kidney is 92.7 percent.
  • Regional. If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues, the 5-year survival rate is 71 percent.
  • Distant. When cancer has spread to more distant tissues (metastasized), the 5-year survival rate is 13.9 percent.

Some of the types of kidney cancer treated with chemotherapy, such as CDC and RMC, are more aggressive and may not be diagnosed until they’ve become more advanced. This can make their outlook poorer.

Generally speaking, the outlook for any type of cancer is best when it’s diagnosed and treated early. If you’ve been diagnosed with a kidney cancer that can be treated with chemotherapy, your care team can give you a good idea about your individual outlook.