Radiation therapy hasn’t been a typical treatment for kidney cancer. Doctors might use it when other options aren’t available or as part of palliative care. But new techniques may make it a more viable option.

Radiation therapy is a procedure that uses high energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is a common treatment for many cancers, but doctors rarely use it alone to treat kidney cancer.

Surgery is the preferred treatment for most cases of early stage kidney cancer. Doctors typically use medications called targeted therapy or immunotherapy to treat advanced kidney cancer.

Your doctor may recommend radiation instead of surgery if you only have one kidney or your overall health makes surgery impossible. They may also use radiation to help relieve symptoms, such as pain, caused by cancer that has spread to your bones or brain.

Radiation therapy isn’t a standard treatment for kidney cancer. Past research suggested kidney cancer might be resistant to radiation and, therefore, not as effective as other treatments, like surgery and targeted therapy.

A doctor may recommend radiation in some cases, but it depends on:

Doctors may recommend radiation therapy for kidney cancer:

  • if you’re unable to have surgery due to your age or health, or if you have only one kidney
  • after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind
  • to ease symptoms of tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, like the bones, brain, or spine
  • if you’ve tried other treatments and they didn’t work

Researchers are also trying to understand whether new approaches to radiation can improve outcomes when combined with other treatments.

Radiation therapy directs high energy waves directly on a tumor using a large machine. The waves damage the DNA inside cancer cells, which causes them to die.

Traditionally, scientists believed kidney cancer was resistant to radiation treatments (radioresistant).

But new advances in radiation techniques, like stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR), have shown favorable results in treating renal cell carcinoma (RCC). RCC is the most common type of kidney cancer.

A clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of SABR in treating primary RCC is currently underway.

Researchers are also testing whether combining radiation with immunotherapy or targeted therapy could improve outcomes for people with advanced kidney cancer.

Radiation therapy can also help shrink tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, like the brain or bones. In this case, doctors use radiation to help relieve symptoms like pain or spinal cord compression. This is called palliative treatment.

To treat kidney cancer, doctors typically use a type of radiation therapy called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). EBRT is similar to getting an X-ray but with a stronger dose of radiation.

Your doctor may recommend SABR, also known as stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). SABR is a specific type of EBRT that uses smaller, more focused beams of high dose radiation aimed at the tumor from various angles.

For the treatment, you lie on a table. Your radiation team places you in the best position to deliver radiation to the cancer site.

Once you’re in position, the radiation team turns on the machine. The machine may move around the table and make a clicking or buzzing sound. Each session lasts a few minutes.

Most side effects of radiation are mild and go away within a few months after treatment. In some cases, side effects may develop a few years after treatment ends.

Short-term side effects

Short-term side effects are usually mild. They may include:

Other short-term side effects may depend on which part of the body is receiving the radiation:

Long-term side effects

Long-term side effects of radiation may appear months or years after treatment. They may include:

  • higher risk of developing a second cancer
  • persistent fatigue
  • increased risk of heart disease

Other long-term side effects may depend on which part of the body is receiving the radiation:

Does radiation therapy make you radioactive?

EBRT does not make you radioactive at any time during or after treatment.

If your doctor uses another radiation therapy called internal radiation therapy (IRT), your body may give off small amounts of radiation for several weeks. This will stop once the radiation treatment ends.

For IRT, your medical team implants a small radioactive source in your body near the cancer site.

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Radiation therapy isn’t currently a standard treatment for kidney cancer, but there are some situations when your doctor may recommend it as part of your overall treatment plan.

Your doctor may use radiation therapy to treat kidney cancer if you cannot have surgery. Radiation can help relieve symptoms caused by tumors that have spread to other parts of the body. It can also decrease the risk of your cancer coming back after surgery.

Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of radiation therapy.