Treatments for kidney cancer
If you have kidney cancer, your healthcare team will create a treatment plan just for you. It will be based on your needs and may include a combination of different treatments. When deciding which treatments to offer for kidney cancer, your healthcare team will consider:
- the stage of kidney cancer
- whether one or both of your kidneys are working
- whether the cancer is in one or both kidneys
- the type of kidney cancer
- your overall health
You may be offered the following treatments for kidney cancer.
Surgery is the primary treatment for kidney cancer. It is used to remove part or all of the kidney. This surgery is called nephrectomy. The type of nephrectomy you have will depend on the size of the tumour and stage of the cancer. For example, doctors will use a partial nephrectomy whenever possible to leave part of the kidney in place. In some cases, they need to use radical nephrectomy, which removes the whole kidney, to try to completely remove a kidney tumour.
In some cases, the doctor will also remove lymph nodes around the kidney. Surgery to remove the lymph nodes is called lymph node dissection, or lymphadenectomy.
Surgery may also be used to relieve pain or ease symptoms of advanced kidney cancer. This is called palliative surgery.
Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on or inside of cancer cells. By targeting these molecules, the drugs stop the growth and spread of cancer cells while limiting harm to normal cells. The type of targeted therapy used will depend on the type of kidney cancer, the level of risk and any targeted therapies you have already received.
Targeted therapy is used to treat kidney cancer that can’t be completely removed with surgery because it has advanced too far. This includes cancer that has spread, or metastasized, to other parts of the body and kidney cancer that comes back, or recurs, after treatment.
A kidney tumour needs blood to grow. Arterial embolization is a procedure that blocks the blood supply to a kidney tumour. It may be done before surgery so there is less bleeding when a large kidney tumour is removed. It can also be used to relieve pain when someone with advanced kidney cancer can’t have surgery.
Ablation therapy is a procedure that destroys kidney cancer cells, while preserving as much of the surrounding kidney tissue as possible. It isn’t used very often to treat kidney cancer, but it may be offered to people who can’t have surgery or who need to keep as much of their kidney as possible.
There are 2 types of ablation therapy used to treat kidney cancer. Radiofrequency ablation uses heat. Cryoablation uses cold.
External beam radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to direct radiation at a tumour and surrounding tissue. It is not usually given to the tumour in the kidney itself but may be used to treat areas where the cancer has spread, especially the bone and brain.
Radiation therapy is also used to relieve pain or to control the symptoms of advanced kidney cancer.
Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses the immune system to help destroy cancer cells. Cancer, and some cancer treatments, can weaken the immune system. Sometimes the immune system doesn’t recognize cancer cells as different, or foreign, and so it doesn’t work to destroy them. Immunotherapy boosts the immune system to help it recognize and fight cancer cells.
There are 2 types of immunotherapy used in Canada: immune checkpoint inhibitors and cytokine drugs. Cytokine drugs are rarely used in Canada because targeted therapies are better at treating kidney cancer. It may be used in specialized centres that have experience using immunotherapy.
Follow-up after treatment is an important part of cancer care. You will need to have regular follow-up visits, especially in the first 3 years after treatment has finished. These visits allow your healthcare team to monitor your progress and recovery from treatment.
Some clinical trials in Canada are open to people with kidney cancer. Clinical trials look for new and better ways to prevent, find and treat cancer. Find out more about clinical trials.
Questions to ask about treatment
To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about treatment.