Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat to kill cancer cells. You might have it to get rid of your cancer, to control its growth or to control symptoms. You might have it alone or with other treatments. 

What is radiofrequency ablation (RFA)?

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat made by radio waves to kill cancer cells. Radiofrequency is a type of electrical energy. Ablation means destroying completely.

You have RFA through a probe (electrode) that goes through your skin into the tumour. The electrical current from the probe heats the cancer cells to high temperatures which destroys them.

Doctors are still finding out more about:

  • which cancers it can 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:

  • 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 might recommend RFA if you can’t have surgery to treat your cancer. This could be because:

  • you have several tumours
  • the position of the cancer makes surgery difficult (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.

Barrett's oesophagus

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

How you have RFA

Before the treatment starts you have either:

  • a general anaesthetic
  • a drug to make you sleepy (sedative) with a local anaesthetic, to numb the area

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

  • during surgery
  • during a laparoscopy, when your surgeon puts a flexible tube of optical fibres into your abdomen (tummy) through a small cut

After an anaesthetic, you have a CT scan or an ultrasound scan.

Your surgeon or radiologist uses the scan to guide a 1 to 2 millimetre wide probe through your skin into the tumour. Your surgeon might need to use several RFA probes if you have a large tumour or more than one tumour.

Your surgeon can vary the heat depending on the size of your cancer. The time this takes varies. It can take anything from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. 

Side effects of RFA

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

  • discomfort or mild pain
  • generally feeling unwell with a raised temperature for a few days
  • infection, but this is rare

You usually need to 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 gives 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.

Talk to your doctor, if you think RFA may be suitable for you. If there isn’t a treatment centre near you, your doctor might be able to refer you to a centre outside your area.

Last reviewed: 
10 Aug 2018
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)
    Various guidelines, accessed August 2018

  • Comparison of Radiofrequency Ablation and Hepatic Resection for the Treatment of Hepatocellular Carcinoma 2 cm or Less

    Y Huang and others 

    Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology, 2018. Volume 18, pages 31126-6

  • Comparative efficacy and safety between ablative therapies or surgery for small hepatocellular carcinoma: a network meta-analysis

    G Zhu and others 

    Expert Review of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2018. Volume 25, pages 1-11

  • Ablation treatment of primary and secondary liver tumors under contrast-enhanced ultrasound guidance in field practice of interventional ultrasound centers. A multicenter study

    G Francica and others 

    European Journal of Radiology, 2018. Volume 105, pages 96-101

  • Percutaneous radiofrequency ablation in the treatment of pulmonary malignancies: efficacy, safety and predictive factors

    T Streitparth and others 

    Oncotarget, 2018. Volume 9, Nunber 14, pages 11722-11733

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.