How tumor ablation is curing some cancer patients with less pain and decreased risk

An interventional radiologist performing tumor ablation

If there’s a sniper in cancer treatment, it’s ablation. In this minimally invasive procedure, a small needle is inserted to precisely zap a tumor — by freezing or heating it. The treatment is over 90% effective in completely curing small tumors.

This technology, which uses extreme temperatures to destroy cancer cells, represents the best of medicine. It's minimally invasive, very effective, has low risks of complications and a quick recovery.

What is tumor ablation?

With ablation treatment, we use energy to burn or freeze a tumor. The technology can be used on a cancerous (malignant) tumor or any non-cancerous (benign) tumor that is growing or causing problems.

Cryoablation is the process of using one or more probes to create an ice ball around a tumor that destroys the cancerous cells. In microwave and radiofrequency ablation, the cells heat up and burn.

Ablation can be used to treat certain liver, kidney or lung cancers. Interventional radiologists are starting to use it in other types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer. In bone cancer, ablation helps with pain management and gives patients relief.

The procedure can also help with pain management for nerve issues.

Some patients receive ablation as their only treatment. Others need ablation in combination with other cancer treatment options, including chemotherapy.

The benefits of ablation for tumors

Completely removing a cancerous or benign tumor in the past has usually required surgery. Now, ablation is an effective and reliable treatment option, depending on a tumor’s location and size. Patients typically go home the same day, cancer-free, with a pinhole incision and a small bandage. For patients and doctors alike, it can feel like magic.

Lung tumors

For certain lung tumors, ablation has multiple benefits over surgical treatments, including shorter recovery time, less bleeding, lower incidence of infection and a decreased rate of major complications.

Liver tumors

Ablation techniques are a promising treatment option for early-stage liver cancer because many patients aren’t eligible for surgery.

Kidney tumors

Ablation can precisely target tumor cells in kidney cancer while sparing surrounding healthy kidney tissue. This is particularly important for patients seeking to spare kidney function or those who are at high risk for surgery.

Ablation can often be repeated if new tumors develop, or if a treated tumor recurs.

How ablation works

Depending on the size and location of the tumor, ablation can cure cancer. This means a patient can come in the morning with a malignant tumor and walk out a few hours later cancer-free.

While under general anesthesia, your radiologist will place one or more very small, thin probes through the skin. Your physician will guide the probes to the exact location of the tumor and freeze or burn it using an ultrasound or CT scan to help see inside the body.

The actual freezing or heating treatment takes about 10-30 minutes, but preparation and recovery add a few hours. You’ll leave with a small bandage over the tiny insertion site.

Nothing is as rewarding in medicine as a same-day oncology treatment cure in which patients leave cancer-free without even a stitch.

Frequently asked questions about ablation

Who’s a good candidate for tumor ablation?

Depending on the stage and location of your tumor, ablation may be a good option. When it's a viable option, most patients prefer minimally invasive treatment because incisions are tiny. That means you’ll recover quicker and have less risk of complications and side effects compared to surgery.

Ablation may be the only treatment option for some patients with other health issues who aren’t candidates for traditional therapies.

Are there side effects of ablation?

After the procedure, you might experience mild to moderate pain, which can be managed with pain medication.

Less common risks are risks of infection, bleeding or injury to adjacent soft tissues. If ablation involves treating a lung tumor, you may need a chest tube for a few days afterward. It's also not uncommon to have bloody phlegm when you cough immediately after the procedure.

You may experience pink or bloody urine after the procedure on a kidney tumor.

What’s the difference between freezing and burning ablation procedures?

Ohio State offers two primary ablation techniques: cryoablation (freezing) and microwave ablation (heating). The best procedure for you depends on the tumor's size and location. The organ your doctor is treating can also affect which type of treatment to use.

Both methods have their advantages. Heating ablation requires fewer probes. Cryoablation allows the radiologist to see the ice around the tumor and avoid getting close to critical structures, such as blood vessels or organs.

We mostly use microwave ablation in the liver. We offer both in the kidney or lungs. If there are no critical structures around the tumor, your doctor will likely use heat. When a tumor has critical structures next to it or is in a small space, your doctor may use cryoablation.

Why is Ohio State a good place to get tumor ablation?

Expert interventional radiologists at Ohio State perform a large number of ablation treatments for a variety of tumors. The technique isn’t available at all hospitals and requires practice and precision. At Ohio State, radiologists manage a high volume of ablation patients, including more complicated cases.

Ablation is one of a few minimally invasive treatment options. Interventional radiologists are like the Swiss army knife of oncology — we find the right, precise tool for your condition and overall health. Together with a group of other specialists in medical, surgical and radiation oncology, we strive to provide positive treatment outcomes.

Ablation is an expanding treatment technique in oncology, and Ohio State researchers continue to study how it can benefit patients.

At The James, there is no routine cancer

Our experts develop and deliver the most advanced targeted treatments leading to better outcomes and more hope.

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