Tumour ablation for primary liver cancer

Tumour ablation means destroying the tumour by applying heat or alcohol directly to it. Tumour ablation can be used to treat small tumours, usually smaller than 3cm. It may be suitable if you cannot have surgery, or choose not to have surgery.

Tumour ablation can also be carried out during a laparoscopy or a liver resection. Your liver specialist will explain whether this type of treatment may be suitable for you.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

This treatment destroys cancer cells by heating them to a high temperature. Some people have RFA more than once.

The doctor passes a fine needle (called an electrode) through your skin and into the liver tumour. An electrical current is passed through the needle. This heats the cancer cells and destroys them.

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

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. You may have pain in the liver area. You can control this by taking regular painkillers. Other side effects include a fever (high temperature), tiredness and feeling generally unwell. These side effects happen because the body is 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:

  • does not go back to normal after a few days
  • goes above 38°C.

These may be signs that you have an infection.

Microwave ablation (MWA)

This is a type of treatment where the tumour is exposed to high temperatures created by microwaves. It is done in the same way as RFA and the side effects are the same.

Percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI)

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

You have this done in the scanning department. The doctor gives you a local anaesthetic to numb the area. They use an ultrasound to help guide the needle into the tumour. You usually need several treatments, depending on the number of tumours and their size. If the tumour grows again, you can have the treatment again.

Side effects

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

Back to Treating

Decisions about treatment

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.


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

Embolisation treatments

Embolisation is when substances are injected into blood vessels to block the blood flow to the cancer cells.


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.

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.

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.