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Cryotherapy kills cancer cells by freezing them. It can cure small, early stage kidney cancers. See how and when you may have it.

What it is

Your doctor puts small needles through your skin into the cancer area. The needles use liquid nitrogen to freeze the cancer cells. These cells fall off and normal cells can replace them.

This treatment is also called freezing therapy, cryosurgery or cryoablation. It is sometimes called percutaneous cryotherapy. Precutaneous means that the freezing probe is put through the skin. 

Who has it

Cryotherapy is used to treat small, early stage kidney cancers less than 4cm across. For some people, it can cure the cancer without a kidney being removed. So it's used for people who are not fit enough for surgery. 

You may need to have the treatment again if the cancer comes back, or if cancer cells are left behind.

The specialist urological cancer multidisciplinary team assess you for this treatment. It's mainly available in specialist hospitals. Your doctor will explain the possible risks and benefits to you. 

What happens

You can have cryotherapy treatment under local or general anaesthetic.

The surgeon finds the cancer using an x-ray or ultrasound scan. They make a cut in the skin over the kidney or use keyhole surgery. Keyhole surgery uses smaller cuts and the doctor uses a camera (laproscope) to see inside the body.

The surgeon may take a small sample of tissue from the cancer. Then they put one or more cryotherapy needles through the skin. These go into the kidney close to the cancer.

Once in position, the needles use liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the cancer cells.

Side effects

The treatment area can be painful after the anaesthetic wears off. You will probably need to take painkillers for a few days.

Other problems after surgery can include:

  • bleeding around the kidney, requiring a blood transfusion
  • urine leakage
  • temporary weakness caused by a nerve being damaged
  • injury to the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder (the ureter)


In research studies there have been no major complications in patients treated with cryotherapy through a cut in the skin (incision).

Complications in people who had cryotherapy through keyhole surgery are very rare, but have included bowel injury, breathing difficulties and an abnormal heart rate.

Last reviewed: 
17 Jan 2019
  • Cryoablation for Small Renal Masses: Selection Criteria, Complications, and Functional and Oncologic Results

    H Zargar and others 

    European Urology 2016 69(1):116-28

  • MDT Guidance for managing Renal Cancer
    British Association of Urological Surgeons (BAUS), Section of Oncology and British Uro-oncology Group (BUG), May 2012

  • Percutaneous cryotherapy for renal cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, July 2011

  • Renal cell carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up

    B Escudier and others 

    Annals of Oncology 2016 27 (Supplement 5): v58–v68,

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