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Cancer treatments: Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a localized, minimally invasive procedure that offers an alternative to surgery for the treatment of some tumors. It is most often used for tumors in the lungs, liver, kidneys, or bone, and it can be used in conjunction with other therapies including radiation and chemotherapy. RF Ablation

How it works

Radiofrequency ablation works by passing electrical currents in the range of radiofrequency waves through a needle electrode that is placed in the tumor. These currents create heat, which destroys the cancer cells. The fact that healthy tissue can withstand heat better than cancer cells allows us to destroy a tumor while minimizing harm to healthy tissue; generally only a very thin rim of normal tissue around the tumor is harmed during radiofrequency ablation.

What to expect

You will be wearing a hospital gown during the procedure. At the start of the procedure, you will be positioned on the examining table and connected to monitors to track your heart rate, blood pressure, and pulse during the procedure. A nurse or technologist will insert an IV line into your arm or hand for medications and fluids. You will be under general anesthesia during the procedure.

The skin will be cleansed with a special soap, and possibly shaved, at the site where the needle electrode will be inserted, and a local anesthetic will be used to numb the site. Sterile drapes will be used to cover the insertion site during the procedure.

As the procedure begins, a small cut is made in the skin, and a large needle is inserted. The radiologist will use imaging guidance to direct the needle to the site of the tumor. When the needle is in the correct position, radiofrequency energy is applied. Each ablation takes about 10 to 30 minutes, and multiple ablations may be required during your procedure if the tumor is large. When the ablations are complete, the needle is removed and pressure is applied to stop any bleeding. A dressing will be applied to the site, but no stitches will be needed.

Recovery

You will stay in the hospital overnight so that pain can be monitored.

When you check out of the hospital, oral medications will be prescribed to relieve any pain or nausea after the procedure. A very low percentage of patients (about 2 percent) will still have pain a week after radiofrequency ablation therapy. Generally, you will be able to get back to your normal activities within a day or two.

About one in four patients may develop flu-like symptoms beginning three to five days after the procedure. The symptoms generally last about five days, but on rare occasions can last two to three weeks. 

Benefits of radiofrequency ablation

Your doctor may choose to include RFA in your treatment plan for a number of reasons. The following are some of the key benefits of this particular therapy.

Easier on the patient

  • RFA is far less invasive than conventional surgery, and the side effects and complications are less common and generally less serious.
  • No surgical incision is needed, and no stitches are needed.
  • Recovery is generally very quick and the patient can resume chemotherapy almost immediately.
  • Patients who are not candidates for surgery, such as patients with multiple tumors, may be candidates for RFA.

Improves patient options

  • RFA can be an excellent complement to radiation. RFA is very effective at destroying the central part of a tumor, the area that tends not to respond as well to radiation therapy. If part of a tumor persists after RFA, radiation therapy is often effective at destroying the remaining tumor cells.
  • If a tumor recurs in the same area, it usually can be retreated by RFA. The procedure may be repeated multiple times if necessary.
  • Even when RFA does not remove all of a tumor, a reduction in the total amount of tumor may extend life for a significant time.

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