Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is a treatment that uses extreme cold to destroy cancer cells. It is a treatment for some types of cancer and precancerous conditions.

You can have cryotherapy in different ways. How you have it depends on where the cancer is in your body. 

What is cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy uses extreme cold to destroy cancer cells. It's also called cryosurgery or cryoablation. During cryotherapy treatment the doctor freezes the cancer cells to kill them.

For cancers on the skin, the doctors put liquid nitrogen on to the area of cancer.

For cancers inside the body, the doctor uses a small stick (probe) called a cryoprobe.  The doctor inserts one or more cryoprobe next to or inside the abnormal cells or cancer. The cryoprobe is attached to a supply of liquid nitrogen which it uses to freeze the cancer cells.

Who can have cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy is a treatment for

  • abnormal cells on the cervix
  • basal cell skin cancer

Research has shown that cryotherapy is safe to use for some other types of cancer including:

  • kidney cancer 
  • advanced lung cancer
  • liver cancer

We need more information about the long term outlook to find out if it is as good as other treatments.

You might also have cryotherapy for prostate cancer, as part of a clinical trial. 

How you have cryotherapy

You can have cryotherapy in different ways. How you have it depends on where the cancer is in your body. 

You might have cryotherapy:

  • directly to your skin -  to treat skin cancer
  • using a speculum to look inside the vagina - to treat abnormal cervical cells
  • through a flexible tube (a scope) - to treat cancers inside your body such as lung cancer
  • through the skin (percutaneous cryotherapy) - to treat cancers inside your body, such as kidney or prostate cancer

Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you beforehand. They will tell you how you will have treatment and exactly what it involves.

Before treatment

You usually have treatment at the hospital as an outpatient.

You might not need a local anaesthetic if the doctor is treating your skin or cervix. But you might have a local or general anaesthetic to treat lung, liver, kidney or prostate cancer. 

For cancers inside your body, you might also have an ultrasound scan or CT scan. This is to find the exact position of the cancer.

Having cryotherapy to treat skin cancer

You have the treatment at an outpatient appointment. Your appointment is with a skin specialist (dermatologist) or specialist GP.  You don't need any special preparation before the treatment. 

Your doctor sprays liquid nitrogen on to the area of cancer. Or they put it directly on to the area with a cotton swab.  The liquid freezes the area. It turns white as it freezes. After a few minutes the liquid nitrogen dissolves and the area thaws.

A scab forms in the treatment area. Over the next month or so the scab falls off along with any dead cancer cells.

Having cryotherapy to treat abnormal cervical cells

You usually have this treatment as an outpatient in the colposcopy unit at the hospital. 

Your doctor or nurse specialist puts a speculum into your vagina to open it so they can see your cervix. They then insert the cryoprobe which contains liquid nitrogen. 

The cryoprobe touches the abnormal areas of cervical tissue. The liquid nitrogen in the cryoprobe then freezes the cells.  The treatment usually takes about 10 minutes. 

Having cryotherapy through a tube (scope)

You have a bronchoscopy if you have cryotherapy for advanced lung cancer.

You will have a general anaesthetic. So you shouldn’t eat or drink anything for a few hours before the cryotherapy. 

Your doctor uses a long, thin, flexible tube called a bronchoscope. They put this down your throat and into the airway. They pass the cryoprobe down through the bronchoscope.

The tip of the cryoprobe freezes part of the tumour. The doctor then allows the area to thaw and they move the probe a little.  

Your doctor repeats this process until they have treated the whole area of cancer. They remove as much of the tissue as possible using forceps or the probe. Your doctor then removes the bronchoscope.

It takes about 30 minutes.

Having cryotherapy through the skin (percutaneously)

You sometimes have cryotherapy through the skin. This is for cancers such as kidney cancer, liver cancer or prostate cancer. It is called percutaneous cryotherapy.

You can have the treatment under local or general anaesthetic.

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

The doctor puts one or more cryoprobes through the cut into the cancer area. The liquid nitrogen in the cryoprobe freezes and destroys the cancer cells.

For prostate cancer, the doctor puts the probes into the skin of the perineum. This is the area of skin between your back passage and your testicles. 

For kidney cancer, the doctor makes a small cut in the skin on the side of your tummy (abdomen).

Side effects of cryotherapy

The possible side effects depend on the area of your body that you're having treatment to.  

Before you agree to treatment your doctor will talk to you about the possible risks. People usually recover within a few days and have very few side effects.

Side effects of cryotherapy for skin cancer

Side effects in the treatment area can include:

  • pain
  • swelling and redness
  • blistering
  • infection, although this is uncommon

Rare and longer term side effects might include scarring and  numbness in the area. The skin colour may become lighter or darker in the treated area.  

Side effects of cryotherapy to the cervix

Side effects might include:

  • period like pain during and for a short time afterwards 
  • light vaginal bleeding which can last for up to 4 weeks 

Side effects of cryotherapy inside the body

General side effects of cryotherapy inside the body can include:

  • pain and discomfort in the treatment area which should settle within a few days
  • bleeding from the treatment area - the nurse checks your blood pressure, pulse and wound
  • damage by freezing normal tissue close to the treatment area - your doctor will try to avoid this as much as they can

You can read more about side effects of cryotherapy to different parts of the body. There are links above to information about lung, prostate and kidney cancer. 

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  •  

    Cryotherapy for liver metastases 
    M Bala and others
    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2019, Issue 7

  • Cryoablation of lung metastases: Review of Recent Literature and Ablation Technique
    P.Eiken and B Welch
    Seminars in Interventional Radiology 2019 Volume 36 Issue 4 Pages 319–325

  • The use of lasers in the treatment of skin cancer: A review
    F Mirza and K Khatri 
    Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy 2017 Volume 19 number 8 pages 451-458

  • Percutaneous cryoablation of hepatic tumors: long-term experience of a large U.S. series
    P Littrup and others 
    Abdominal Radiology 2016 Volume 41 number 4 pages 767-80

  • Laparoscopic Versus Percutaneous Cryoablation of Small Renal Mass: Systematic Review and Cumulative Analysis of Comparative Studies
    R Pessoa and others 
    Clinical Genitourinary Cancer 2017 Volume 15 number 5 pages 513-519

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2022
Next review due: 
05 May 2022