Using heat or alcohol treatments

Treatments that apply heat or alcohol directly to the tumour can be used to destroy small tumours. This is called tumour ablation. Your doctor may recommend this if you cannot have surgery, or choose not to have surgery. Tumour ablation can also be done at the same time as a liver resection.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) destroys the cancer cells with heat. You usually have RFA under a general anaesthetic. The doctor passes a fine needle through your skin into the liver using an ultrasound or CT scan as a guide. They apply heat to the cancer cells by passing an electric current through the needle which is directed at the tumour.

Percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI) destroys cancer cells by injecting alcohol (ethanol) into the tumour. It is given through a fine needle that your doctor passes into the liver using a local anaesthetic.

You may develop some mild side effects, such as pain and a high temperature, after these treatments. Your doctor can prescribe medicines to control these and ask you to contact the hospital if side effects don’t improve.

Using heat or alcohol to destroy the tumour

Treatments that destroy the tumour by applying heat or alcohol directly to the tumour can be used usually to treat tumours smaller than 3cm. This is called tumour ablation. It may be suitable if you can’t have surgery, or choose not to have surgery.

Doctors usually recommend these treatments when there is a good chance that they will be successful. Your liver specialist will explain if they are possible treatments for you. They can also be carried out during a laparoscopy or a liver resection.


Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

This treatment destroys cancer cells by heating them to a high temperature using radiowaves. The doctor passes a fine needle (called an electrode) through your skin into the liver tumour. An electrical current is passed through the needle into the tumour to heat the cancer cells and destroy them.

You may need to stay overnight in hospital to have this done. The treatment is usually done under a general anaesthetic. The doctor uses ultrasound or CT scanning to help them guide the needle directly into the tumour. Afterwards, you will have 1–3 tiny holes in your tummy area, which will usually heal quickly.

Some people will have RFA more than once. You usually have a CT scan a few weeks after RFA to see how well it has worked.

Side effects

The side effects of RFA are usually mild and may last up to a week. They include pain in the liver area, which you can control by taking regular pain killers. Other side effects are a fever (high temperature) and feeling tired and generally unwell. These side effects are due to the body getting rid of the cells that have been destroyed. Try to drink plenty of fluids and get enough rest. Your doctor or nurse may ask you to contact the hospital if your temperature doesn’t settle within a few days or if it goes above 38°C. This is to make sure you don’t have an infection.


Percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI)

This involves injecting alcohol (ethanol) through the skin and into the liver tumour. The alcohol destroys the cancer cells. 

You have this done in the scanning department. You’ll be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area first. An ultrasound helps the doctor guide the needle exactly into the tumour. You usually need several treatments, depending on the number of tumours and their size. If the tumour grows again, the treatment can be repeated.

Side effects

Side effects include pain and fever, and are usually mild. Let your doctor know if you develop any side effects, as they can usually be controlled with medicines.