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Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with renal cell cancer.

Different types of treatments are available for patients with renal cell cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Five types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery to remove part or all of the kidney is often used to treat renal cell cancer. The following types of surgery may be used:

  • Partial nephrectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the cancer within the kidney and some of the tissue around it. A partial nephrectomy may be done to prevent loss of kidney function when the other kidney is damaged or has already been removed.
  • Simple nephrectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the kidney only.
  • Radical nephrectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the kidney, the adrenal gland, surrounding tissue, and, usually, nearby lymph nodes.

A person can live with part of 1 working kidney, but if both kidneys are removed or not working, the person will need dialysis (a procedure to clean the blood using a machine outside of the body) or a kidney transplant (replacement with a healthy donated kidney). A kidney transplant may be done when the disease is in the kidney only and a donated kidney can be found. If the patient has to wait for a donated kidney, other treatment is given as needed.

When surgery to remove the cancer is not possible, a treatment called arterial embolization may be used to shrink the tumor. A small incision is made and a catheter (thin tube) is inserted into the main blood vessel that flows to the kidney. Small pieces of a special gelatin sponge are injected through the catheter into the blood vessel. The sponges block the blood flow to the kidney and prevent the cancer cells from getting oxygen and other substances they need to grow.

After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

  • External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.
  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat renal cell cancer, and may also be used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

See Drugs Approved for Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer for more information.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or biologic therapy.

The following types of immunotherapy are being used in the treatment of renal cell cancer:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy: Some types of immune cells, such as T cells, and some cancer cells have certain proteins, called checkpoint proteins, on their surface that keep immune responses in check. When cancer cells have large amounts of these proteins, they will not be attacked and killed by T cells. Immune checkpoint inhibitors block these proteins and the ability of T cells to kill cancer cells is increased. They are used to treat some patients with advanced renal cell cancer that cannot be removed by surgery.

    There are two types of immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy:

    • CTLA-4 inhibitor: CTL4-A is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. When CTLA-4 attaches to another protein called B7 on a cancer cell, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. CTLA-4 inhibitors attach to CTLA-4 and allow the T cells to kill cancer cells. Ipilimumab is a type of CTLA-4 inhibitor.
    • PD-1 inhibitor: PD-1 is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. When PD-1 attaches to another protein called PDL-1 on a cancer cell, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. PD-1 inhibitors attach to PDL-1 and allow the T cells to kill cancer cells. Nivolumab is a type of PD-1 inhibitor.
  • Interferon: Interferon affects the division of cancer cells and can slow tumor growth.
  • Interleukin-2 (IL-2): IL-2 boosts the growth and activity of many immune cells, especially lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Lymphocytes can attack and kill cancer cells.

See Drugs Approved for Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer for more information.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Targeted therapy with antiangiogenic agents are used to treat advanced renal cell cancer. Antiangiogenic agents keep blood vessels from forming in a tumor, causing the tumor to starve and stop growing or to shrink.

Monoclonal antibodies and kinase inhibitors are two types of antiangiogenic agents used to treat renal cell cancer.

  • Monoclonal antibody therapy uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies used to treat renal cell cancer attach to and block substances that cause new blood vessels to form in tumors. Bevacizumab is a monoclonal antibody.
  • Kinase inhibitors stop cells from dividing and may prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow.

    Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) inhibitors and mTOR inhibitors are kinase inhibitors used to treat renal cell cancer.

    • VEGF inhibitors: Cancer cells make a substance called VEGF, which causes new blood vessels to form (angiogenesis) and helps the cancer grow. VEGF inhibitors block VEGF and stop new blood vessels from forming. This may kill cancer cells because they need new blood vessels to grow. Sunitinib, pazopanib, cabozantinib, axitinib, and sorafenib are VEGF inhibitors.
    • mTOR inhibitors: mTOR is a protein that helps cells divide and survive. mTOR inhibitors block mTOR and may keep cancer cells from growing and prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. Everolimus and temsirolimus are mTOR inhibitors.

See Drugs Approved for Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer for more information.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Treatment for renal cell cancer may cause side effects.

For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on www.cancer.gov.

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