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Radiofrequency ablation

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This page tells you about radiofrequency ablation (RFA). You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

What radiofrequency ablation is

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat made by radio waves to kill cancer cells. The electrical energy heats up the tumour and kills the cancer cells. You might have RFA alone, or in combination with other cancer treatments such as surgery. It is most often used for lung cancer, kidney cancer or cancer in the liver.

Researchers have found that RFA works best on small cancers, usually those smaller than 5cm across. But doctors sometimes use it to treat larger tumours. You can have RFA treatment more than once if you need it.

How you have radiofrequency ablation 

You may have a general anaesthetic or a medicine to make you drowsy (sedative) with a local anaesthetic. The most common way to have RFA is using a probe put through the skin and into the tumour. Your doctor uses a scan to guide the very fine probe into the tumour. Once the probe is in place the doctor heats it. It takes about 30 minutes to treat each tumour.

You may also have RFA during surgery or using a flexible tube put into the abdomen (tummy) through a cut (a laparoscopy).  

Most people stay overnight in hospital after RFA but some people can have it as an outpatient.

Possible side effects of RFA

Most people have a few mild side effects after RFA. The most common effects are discomfort or mild pain and generally feeling unwell. Rarely, people develop an infection. Your treatment team will discuss the possible side effects with you.

 

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What radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is

Radiofrequency ablation uses heat made by radio waves to kill cancer cells. Radiofrequency is a type of electrical energy. Ablation means destroying completely. The electrical energy heats up the tumour and kills the cancer cells. You have RFA through a probe that goes through your skin into the tumour. RFA is quite a new treatment and at the moment only a few specialist centres can offer it. 

Doctors are still finding out more about

  • Which cancers to treat
  • How well it works
  • What the side effects are
 

Who can have RFA

RFA is not usually the main treatment for cancer. You might have RFA alone, or in combination with other treatments, if you have one of the following cancers

  • Primary liver cancer
  • Secondary cancer in the liver
  • Primary lung cancer
  • Secondary cancer in the lung
  • Kidney cancer

Primary cancer means the original cancer in the part of the body where it started. A secondary cancer means cancer cells that have spread to another part of the body and formed a new tumour there (for example, secondary cancer in the liver that has spread from a bowel cancer).

Your doctors may recommend RFA if you can’t have surgery to treat your cancer. This may be because

  • You have several tumours
  • The position of the cancer means it is difficult to do surgery (for example, if it is near a major blood vessel)
  • You can’t have a general anaesthetic

Researchers have found that RFA works best on small cancers, usually those smaller than 5cm across. But doctors sometimes use RFA to treat larger tumours. You can have RFA treatment several times.

If you have high grade Barrett's oesophagus, your doctor may suggest you have RFA either on its own or in combination with other treatment. Barrett’s oesophagus is a change in the cells lining the food pipe (oesophagus). High grade means that the cells look very abnormal under the microscope. 

 

How you have RFA

Before the treatment starts you have either a general anaesthetic or a sedative with a local anaesthetic.

You can have RFA in different ways. The most common way is through your skin (percutaneously). But you can also have it

After an anaesthetic, you have a CT scan or an ultrasound scan. Your surgeon or radiologist use the scan to guide a probe through your skin into the tumour. The probe is very fine and is only 1 or 2 millimetres across. If you have a large tumour or more than one tumour, your surgeon may need to use several RFA probes.

The doctor can vary the heat depending on the size of your cancer. The time this takes varies, but it usually takes about 30 minutes to treat each tumour.

 

Side effects of RFA

Most people have a few mild side effects after RFA. The main ones are

  • Discomfort or mild pain where you’ve been treated
  • Generally feeling unwell with a raised temperature for a few days
  • Infection, but this is rare

Most people stay in hospital overnight. But it’s sometimes possible to have your treatment as an outpatient and go home the same day. Your doctor or specialist nurse will give you painkillers to take home with you.

 

How well RFA works

Because RFA is a new treatment, it is too early to be sure how well it works in the long term. But research results are promising for some cancer types. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance for the use of RFA. Generally it says that RFA is safe to use. It also usually causes few side effects or complications.

You can find out more about the NICE guidance for RFA and any specific side effects in the following sections.

You can also find out about research into RFA for

If you think RFA may be suitable for you, talk to your doctor. If there isn’t a treatment centre near you, your doctor may be able to refer you to a centre outside your area. The Cancer Thermal Ablation Fund in London takes referrals from outside London. Their website has information about RFA.

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Updated: 26 September 2013