There are various treatment options to manage kidney cancer. These typically include surgery, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.

Kidney cancer is cancer that starts within the kidney. It is one of the most common cancers in the United States.

Treatments are available to help slow the progression of the disease, extend survival times, and relieve symptoms. Unlike many other cancers, kidney cancer does not typically respond well to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Other treatments, such as surgery, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy, are proving much more effective.

This article describes the various treatment options for kidney cancer, including their associated benefits, risks, and side effects. We also offer advice on when to speak with a doctor about symptoms or treatment side effects.

Doctor examining a person's body near the kidneysShare on Pinterest
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There are several treatment options for kidney cancer.

The type of treatment a doctor recommends will depend on several factors, including a person’s overall health and the stage of their cancer.

Surgical treatment for kidney cancer involves removing as much of the cancerous tissue as possible.

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), there are two main types of surgery for kidney cancer:

  • Nephrectomy: complete removal of the affected kidney
  • Partial nephrectomy: removal of the part of the kidney that contains the cancerous tumor or cells, leaving the rest of the kidney intact


According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), in rare cases where kidney cancer has not spread to surrounding tissues, surgery can lead to long-term survival.

Doctors may also recommend surgery to remove secondary tumors if the cancer has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. Removing these tumors can help alleviate pain and other symptoms.

Side effects and risks

Potential complications of surgery and other treatments for kidney cancer include:

Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high energy X-rays and other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing and dividing.


According to the NHS, radiation therapy is not a standard treatment for kidney cancer, but it may be an option if surgery is not possible or if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Doctors also use radiation therapy as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Side effects and risks

Radiation therapy can cause side effects such as:

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing and spreading. Doctors may administer these medications orally or intravenously.

According to the ACS, chemotherapy is not a standard treatment for kidney cancer, since kidney cancer cells typically do not respond well to it. However, doctors may recommend chemotherapy if a person has already received other treatments, such as targeted drugs and immunotherapy.


Chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and reach nearly all areas of the body. This makes chemotherapy treatment potentially useful for cancer that has spread to organs and tissues beyond the kidneys.

Side effects and risks

Chemotherapy drugs attack any rapidly dividing cells, regardless of whether they are cancerous. This can cause side effects in parts of the body that contain quickly dividing cells, such as the:

  • bone marrow
  • lining of the mouth and intestines
  • hair follicles

Potential side effects of chemotherapy include:

Immunotherapy uses the person’s immune system to recognize, target, and destroy cancer cells.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are currently three main types of immunotherapy treatment for kidney cancer:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy: Some cancer cells have large numbers of checkpoint proteins on their surface. These proteins prevent immune cells called T cells from targeting and destroying the cancer. Immune checkpoint inhibitors block these proteins so that the T cells can work more effectively to kill the cancer.
  • Interferon: This drug interferes with the division of cancer cells to help slow tumor growth.
  • Interleukin-2: This drug boosts the growth and activity of lymphocytes and other immune cells that help destroy cancer cells.


According to the Cancer Research Institute, immunotherapy drugs have become a standard treatment for metastatic kidney cancer, which is advanced kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. These drugs seem to be more effective than other standard cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy.

Side effects and risks

Immunotherapy boosts a person’s immune system. While this helps kill cancer cells, it can also cause the immune system to go into overdrive and indiscriminately attack other parts of the body. This can lead to complications in major organs such as the:

  • lungs
  • intestines
  • liver
  • hormone glands, such as the thyroid

Possible side effects of immunotherapy include:

Targeted therapy is so called because it targets proteins that regulate how cancer cells grow, divide, and spread.

Targeted therapies work in different ways to help treat cancer. They may work by:

  • helping the immune system identify and destroy cancer cells
  • interrupting signals that cause cancer cells to grow and divide uncontrollably
  • stopping signals that encourage blood vessels to form in or around a tumor, thereby depriving the tumor of the blood supply it needs to survive or grow
  • depriving cancer cells of the hormones they need for growth, either by preventing the body from making the hormones or preventing the hormones from acting on the cancer cells
  • delivering cell-killing substances to cancer cells
  • causing cancer cells to die


According to the ACS, targeted therapy is a more effective treatment for kidney cancer than chemotherapy. While targeted drugs are not a cure for cancer, they can help shrink tumors or slow cancer growth for a period of time.

Side effects and risks

Potential side effects of targeted therapy include:

  • mouth sores
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • rash
  • changes in skin or hair color
  • swelling or blisters on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • low white blood cell count
  • low red blood cell count
  • weakness
  • pain
  • fatigue

A person should make an appointment with a healthcare professional if they experience symptoms of kidney cancer.

Possible symptoms of kidney cancer include:

  • blood in the urine
  • persistent or recurrent pain between the ribs and waist
  • a lump or swelling in the back, under the ribs, or in the neck
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue
  • persistent fever
  • excessive sweating, including at night

These symptoms do not necessarily indicate kidney cancer. However, a doctor will work to identify the cause and rule out kidney cancer and other serious conditions.

A person should also speak to their doctor if they are receiving treatment for kidney cancer and are experiencing side effects or have concerns that the treatment is not working. A doctor can reassess the person’s treatment plan and may change or add treatments or adjust medication dosages.

Kidney cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States. Several treatment options are available to help slow the progression of the disease, extend survival times, and relieve symptoms.

Unlike many other cancers, kidney cancer tends not to respond well to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Surgery, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy seem to be much more effective in treating kidney cancer. A person can talk with their doctor about their treatment options and the potential benefits, risks, and side effects.

A person should contact their doctor if they develop symptoms of kidney cancer or are experiencing side effects of cancer treatment. A doctor can run any necessary diagnostic tests and devise or adjust treatment plans.