Side Effects of Kidney Cancer Treatment

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The type of side effects you experience depend on the treatment path you and your doctor choose to deal with your kidney cancer. There are physical side effects of kidney cancer treatment and there are emotional effects. Learning about the challenges ahead may help you plan ways to cope with the side effects of kidney cancer.

Kidney Cancer Treatment Options

Depending on the stage of the kidney cancer, you may have several different treatment options, each causing its own side effects. Treatments include:

  • Surgery: This is the most common treatment plan when the tumor is still confined to the kidney. It offers the best rate of survival, up to around 80%, but because it is an invasive treatment, it will result in some postoperative pain and often complete loss of one kidney.

  • Ablation: This treatment either heats or freezes the tumor in order to destroy it. Other treatments may follow ablation to make sure the cancer is gone. This treatment may cause bleeding or damage to the kidney or other organs.

  • Targeted therapy: With this treatment, drugs attack the blood vessels that feed the tumor. It can cause fatigue, nausea, skin problems, mouth sores, and diarrhea.

  • Immunotherapy (biologic therapy): The most common type of kidney cancer, renal cell carcinoma, may be treated with immunotherapy, usually when the cancer has spread. However, some immunotherapies can cause serious side effects, such as extreme fatigue, trouble breathing, heart attack, and mental changes. Often these side effects aren’t well tolerated, but some immunotherapies result in milder side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, skin problems, and fatigue.

  • Radiation therapy: Because radiation can harm a healthy kidney, this treatment option is seldom a first choice, but it may be used if the cancer has spread to the bones, brain, or spine. Side effects can include skin problems, hair loss, diarrhea, and fatigue.

  • Chemotherapy: Kidney cancer tends to be resistant to chemotherapy, so this treatment course is rarely used.

Physical Side Effects of Kidney Cancer Treatment

Pain: After surgery or other treatment, you will likely deal with pain, which can also result from the kidney cancer itself. To cope, talk with your doctor about how much you hurt, where the pain occurs, and whether anything you do worsens the pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers may be suitable for managing your pain, or your doctor might need to prescribe stronger medication. Although radiation is usually not a primary choice for kidney cancer treatment, it can be used to control pain, so talk to your doctor about whether this is an option.

Nausea: To combat stomach sickness, try to eat smaller meals throughout the day rather than a large breakfast, lunch and dinner. Salty foods or drinks might also help. If these non-medicinal techniques don’t help, your doctor can prescribe anti-nausea medication.

Fatigue: Even though it might be difficult when you are exhausted, staying active will actually help you feel better. Be sure to rest when you need it so you don’t overexert yourself. You might also need a prescription to deal with fatigue.

Bowel issues: Constipation or diarrhea can result from treatment. To cope, be sure to drink adequate fluids throughout the day, get some exercise, and eat healthful foods.

Skin problems: Radiation and drug treatments can irritate the skin, causing rashes, redness, dryness and sensitivity. Your doctor can provide information about caring for damaged skin.

Emotional Side Effects of Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer can take a significant emotional toll on people. Feeling overwhelmed or afraid is normal, but there are steps you can take to help slow down the emotional roller coaster.

Anxiety or depression: Sometimes physical side effects can lead to emotional side effects, such as anger or anxiety. Or you may be thinking about death, which causes you to feel fear and depression. Financial concerns of paying for cancer treatment can also be stressful. Relaxation techniques have been shown to relieve stress. If that isn’t effective for you, your doctor can prescribe an antidepressant, which is usually safe even while having drug therapies.

Social concerns: You might be feeling lonely, so be sure to seek out a support system of people you can rely on for comfort. That can be family and friends, a cancer support group, a spiritual counselor, or anyone else you feel comfortable talking to. As for social activities, you don’t necessarily have to stop doing things you’re used to if you’re feeling up to it. It’s fine to have a beer or glass of wine on occasion, even after kidney removal, but talk to your doctor to make sure having an alcoholic drink won’t interfere with other treatments.

Life after kidney removal: You might have a lot of doctor appointments after a nephrectomy, but remember, these checkups are important to keep track of your progress to make sure you’re healing well and the cancer has not returned.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 9
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  10. Radiation Therapy for Kidney Cancer. American Cancer Society.