Using heat to destroy cancer cells (ablation)

What is ablation?

Ablation uses heat to destroy cancer cells. It may only be available for certain cancers and sometimes as part of a research trial. It is often used in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery.

If your doctor feels that ablation may be helpful in your situation, they can refer you to a hospital that carries out the treatments. Ablation treatments are only available in some specialist hospitals, so you may have to travel for treatment.

Types of ablation

There are three types of ablation that produce heat in different ways. These are:

  • microwave
  • radiofrequency
  • laser ablation.

Each type destroys cancer cells by heating them to a high temperature. They may be used if you have previously had surgery or if you’re not fit enough to have surgery.

What happens during ablation?

You will be given a sedative drug to make you feel drowsy and a local anaesthetic to numb the skin of your abdomen. Sometimes ablation is performed using a general anaesthetic.

The doctor puts a fine needle through the skin over your liver and into the centre of each tumour. They use an ultrasound or CT scan to guide them. The microwave, radiofrequency or laser then produces heat which passes through the needle and into the tumour. This treatment takes about 30–60 minutes and can be used to treat tumours up to 5cm (2in) in size. You can usually go home a few hours after you’ve had your treatment.

Side effects

The side effects of ablation are usually mild and may last up to a week. They include pain in the liver area, which you can control by taking regular painkillers. 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 higher than 38˚C (100.4°F). This is to make sure you don’t have an infection.

Your specialist can give you more information about the possible benefits and risks of these procedures.

We have more information about radiofrequency ablation.

Back to Treating

Making treatment decisions

Your doctors may tell you there are different options for your treatment. Having the right information will help you make the right decision for you.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat many different types of cancer. It is most commonly given as an injection into a vein or as tablets or capsules.

Surgery

Surgery involves removing all or part of the cancer with an operation. It is an important treatment for many cancers.

Hormonal therapies

Some cancers depend on hormones to grow. Find out about different hormonal therapies and how they work.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays, usually x-rays and similar rays (such as electrons) to treat cancer.

Life after cancer treatment

You might be thinking about how to get back to normal following treatment. Find advice, information and support about coping with and after cancer.

Clinical trials

Many people are offered a trial as part of treatment. Find out more to help you decide if a trial is right for you.