Tumour ablation

Ablation treatments can be used to treat very early stage lung cancer or to shrink a tumour. They are also used to relieve breathlessness if the tumour is blocking the airways.

There are several types of ablation treatments:

  • Radiofrequency ablation – this treatment uses heat to destroy the cancer cells. The doctor places a needle into the tumour through which radio waves, (the source of the heat) are passed.
  • Photodynamic therapy – this treatment combines light sensitive drugs and lasers. First, you’ll be given a drug that makes cancer cells sensitive to light. Then the doctor will direct a light at the tumour to destroy it.
  • Cryosurgery – this treatment uses extreme cold (liquid nitrogen) to freeze and destroy cancer cells.
  • Diathermy – in this treatment, electrical current is used to destroy cancer cells.
  • Laser therapy – In this treatment, the surgeon uses a flexible tube through a bronchoscope to direct a laser beam at the tumour.

Tumour ablation

Tumour ablation are treatments that may use heat (radiofrequency ablation) or laser light (photodynamic therapy) to destroy cancer cells. Doctors sometimes use these treatments for small, very early stage lung cancers.

Other tumour ablation treatments use cold (cryotherapy), an electrical current (diathermy) or a laser to help shrink the cancer. These can be given to relieve breathlessness when the tumour is growing into the windpipe or main airways into the lungs (bronchi).

Radiofrequency ablation

This treatment uses heat to destroy cancer cells. It’s usually only used when a person has a very early stage cancer and other treatments are not suitable.

You may be given a local anaesthetic and sedative to make you sleepy before this treatment or you may have a general anaesthetic. You usually need to stay in hospital overnight to have the treatment.

Your doctor will place a needle into the tumour, using a CT scan to make sure it is in the exact place. Radio waves are passed through the needle into the tumour to heat and destroy the cancer cells.

There are few side effects with this treatment. It’s common to have some pain or discomfort but you will be given painkillers to control this. You may also feel tired afterwards.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

This treatment uses lasers or other light sources, combined with a light-sensitive drug, to destroy cancer cells. PDT can sometimes be used to treat some small, early lung cancers in people who can’t have surgery.

You have a light-sensitive drug that makes the cancer cells more sensitive to the laser. You are given this as a liquid into a vein.

When the drug is taken up by the cancer cells, the doctor directs the laser light at the tumour with a bronchoscope.

The laser makes the light-sensitive drug destroy cancer cells. PDT makes you temporarily sensitive to light. You may need to avoid bright light for up to six weeks by covering your skin and wearing sunglasses in daylight.

Other side effects of PDT include breathlessness and a cough. You may also have some mild pain or discomfort in your chest. Your doctor can give you more information. PDT is only available at some hospitals.

Treating blocked or narrowed airways

Doctors usually use the following treatments to relieve symptoms when the cancer is causing a blockage or narrowing the airways. PDT is occasionally used to treat an advanced cancer.


Cryosurgery (or cryotherapy) uses extreme cold to freeze and destroy cancer cells. It is mainly used if the tumour grows into the main lung airway (trachea) and causes it to narrow. This isn’t common but if it happens you can become very breathless.

You have a general anaesthetic for this treatment. While you’re asleep, the doctor will use a bronchoscope  to guide a thin, flexible tube with a rounded end (probe) close to the tumour. Liquid nitrogen, which freezes and destroys the cancer cells, is passed through the probe into the tumour. You can have this treatment again if the tumour grows back.

Diathermy (or electrocautery)

This treatment uses an electrical current to destroy cancer cells. If your airway is blocked, diathermy can make it easier for your doctor to give you internal radiotherapy .

Sometimes, the two treatments can be given together. You usually have diathermy under a general anaesthetic.

Your doctor will use a bronchoscopeto guide a probe into your windpipe. They pass an electrical current through the probe into the tumour to destroy cancer cells.

Laser therapy

Doctors can use laser therapy to shrink the cancer to prevent it from blocking the airways.

Laser therapy doesn’t destroy the tumour completely, but it can help to reduce or get rid of breathlessness. You usually have laser therapy under a general anaesthetic.

The surgeon passes a flexible tube through a bronchoscope to aim the laser beam at the tumour. The laser beam shrinks as much of the tumour as possible. There aren’t usually any side effects from laser therapy. You can go home the same evening or the next day. If you’ve had an infection in your lung, you may need to stay in hospital for a few days for antibiotic treatment and physiotherapy. Laser treatment can be used again. It is sometimes given together with radiotherapy, which can make the effects last longer.

Back to Treating

Making treatment decisions

Your doctors may tell you there are different options for your treatment. It can be difficult to make a decision, but information and support will help.


Chemotherapy is the main treatment for small cell lung cancer. There are a number of different drugs.


Radiotherapy may be used alongside chemotherapy to treat small cell lung cancer. It can also be used on its own to ease symptoms.

Surgery for lung cancer

Surgery is usually only possible for people with small cell lung cancer when the cancer is found very early and is limited.

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.