Tumour ablation for lung cancer

Tumour ablation treatments are sometimes used to treat early-stage lung cancer. These include radiofrequency ablation and photodynamic therapy.

What is tumour ablation?

Tumour ablation involves treatments that destroy cancer cells using:

  • heat (radiofrequency or microwave ablation)
  • laser light (photodynamic therapy or PDT).

Doctors sometimes use these to treat small, very early-stage lung cancers.

Doctors also give PDT and other treatments to relieve breathlessness when the cancer is blocking the airways into the lungs. We have more information about other treatments to treat a blocked airway.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

This treatment uses heat to destroy cancer cells. It is usually only used in people with small, early-stage lung cancers if:

  • surgery is not suitable
  • they choose not to have surgery.

Some people have it at the same time as radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Before having RFA, you may have a local anaesthetic and sedative to make you sleepy. Some people have a general anaesthetic. You usually need to stay in hospital overnight to have the treatment.

You might have RFA during one or more treatment session.

The doctor puts a needle into the tumour, usually using a CT scan to make sure it is in the right place. An electrical current (radio-waves) is passed through the needle into the tumour. The current heats the cancer cells to a high temperature. This destroys (ablates) them.

It is common to have some pain or discomfort after having RFA. You will be given painkillers to control this. You may also feel tired afterwards.

Always contact your doctor if you become more breathless after having RFA.

We have more information about radiofrequency ablation.

Microwave ablation

Microwave ablation is done in a similar way to RFA. The doctor sends microwave energy through the needle and into the tumour. This heats and destroys the cancer cells.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

This treatment destroys cancer cells using lasers or other light sources, together with a light-sensitive drug. PDT is sometimes used if you have early-stage lung cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes and you cannot have surgery. For example, this might be because:

  • you have other lung conditions that make surgery unsuitable
  • the cancer is in both lungs.

PDT can only treat cancer if it is in the lung and can be reached by a bronchoscope. A bronchoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera at the end. A doctor or nurse can use it to look inside your airways and lungs. They pass the bronchoscope through your nose or mouth and down into your windpipe (trachea) to do this.

PDT may help shrink the cancer and improve symptoms of breathlessness. You can have PDT on its own, but you are more likely to have it with other treatments. PDT is only available at some hospitals.

How PDT is given

You have PDT in two stages. First a nurse gives you a light-sensitive drug as an injection into a vein. They do this at the hospital. The drug makes the cancer cells more sensitive to the laser.

Then you have the laser light treatment a few hours later. You have this after the light-sensitive drug has been taken up by the cancer cells. The doctor may give you a drug to help you to relax. Then they direct the laser light at the tumour using a bronchoscope. The laser makes the light-sensitive drug destroy cancer cells.

Side effects of PDT

The light-sensitive drug makes you temporarily sensitive to light. You may need to avoid bright light, by covering your skin and wearing sunglasses in daylight. How long you need to do this for depends on the drug you have. The nurse will explain what you need to do.

Some side effects of PDT include breathlessness and a cough. Your doctor can give you more information.

We have more information about PDT.