Immunotherapy for kidney cancer

Immunotherapy drugs encourage the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. Immunotherapy is sometimes used to treat types of advanced kidney cancer.

About immunotherapy for kidney cancer

Immunotherapy drugs encourage the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. They are used to treat kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body (advanced or metastatic kidney cancer).

Immunotherapy is not suitable for people with certain medical conditions. Your doctor can talk to you about this.

The following immunotherapy drugs are used to treat kidney cancer (renal cell cancer). These drugs are also called checkpoint inhibitors:

Other combinations of checkpoint inhibitors and TKIs are being studied in clinical trials. These treatments may become available when the results are known.

How immunotherapy drugs are given

You have checkpoint inhibitors as a drip into a vein (intravenously).

Treatments may not be widely available on the NHS for all types of kidney cancer. Some people have immunotherapy as part of a clinical trial.

If a drug is not available, there may be different ways you can still have it. Your doctor may be able to apply for funding to get it if it is appropriate for you.

Side effects of immunotherapy for kidney cancer

Checkpoint inhibitors can make the immune system too active. This can cause inflammation in parts of the body. The most common parts it can affect are the:

  • skin – causing a rash
  • thyroid gland – causing it to become overactive or underactive
  • bowels – causing diarrhoea
  • joints – causing pain and swelling.

More rarely, these drugs cause problems in other places such as the:

  • liver
  • lung
  • heart
  • nerves
  • brain
  • other organs.

This type of side effect may start weeks, months, or sometimes more than a year, after you finish treatment.

Some people have very few side effects. But the side effects of checkpoint inhibitors can be serious. If you have any symptoms or side effects that start during treatment or after treatment finishes, contact your doctor or hospital straight away.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our kidney cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Escudier B, et al. Renal cell carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology 30: 706-720, 2019. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdz056 Published online 21 February 2019. Available from (accessed April 2021).

    European Association of Urology. Renal cell carcinoma guidelines. EAU Guidelines. Edn. presented at the EAU Annual Congress Milan 2021. ISBN 978-94-92671-13-4. Available from (accessed April 2021).

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE): Nivolumab with ipilimumab for untreated advanced renal cell carcinoma. Technology appraisal guidance (TA581). Published 15 May 2019. Available from (accessed April 2021).

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Lisa Pickering, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 November 2021
Next review: 01 November 2024
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.