Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) for cancer

The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

Radiofrequency ablation, or RFA, is a type of treatment that uses high temperatures to destroy cancer cells and tumors. Ablation refers to the removal or destruction of tissue, while radiofrequency refers to the way the tissue is destroyed.

RFA is performed using a needle or probe. Electrical currents enter the cancer cells, heating them to a very high temperature.

Your care team may recommend radiofrequency ablation as a treatment for your cancer. This guide can help you learn more about what to expect.

When is radiofrequency ablation used?

RFA is most often used to treat small tumors or tumors that are hard to access in the body. Sometimes, if you have other health complications and may not tolerate the stress of surgery, RFA is used as an alternative because it’s less invasive.

It may be used to treat a range of cancer types, including:

RFA is also used to treat noncancerous medical conditions, such as Barrett’s esophagus (a precancerous throat condition), and it may offer pain relief for patients with chronic issues due to conditions such as arthritis or back pain.

It’s a well-tolerated treatment option that’s less invasive than surgery, making for a faster and easier recovery process.

How to prepare for your treatment

Your treatment team can give you clear instructions on what you should do to prepare for your procedure. This is a good opportunity to ask questions and find out more about what to expect on the day of your treatment.

  • You may be asked to stop eating and drinking for a few hours before treatment.
  • You may need to temporarily stop any medications you take that could cause blood clotting.
  • You’ll want to provide your doctor with a list of all your current medications beforehand, including over-the-counter medicines, as some could interfere with treatment.
  • You may want to arrange for a ride home.

What to expect during the procedure

RFA is usually done as an outpatient procedure, which means that you’re able to go home on the same day.

  • You’ll be given a local anesthetic so that you don’t feel discomfort.
  • The doctor inserts a probe into your skin, using computed tomography (CT) scans or other imaging tools to guide it to the location of the tumor.
  • An electrical current runs through the probe and into the tumor, heating to a high temperature that aims to kill and destroy the cancer cells.

Depending on the tumor’s position, your doctor may also use an endoscopy or laparoscopy to access the area.

The procedure lasts anywhere from a half-hour to several hours, depending on the tumor type and number of tumors being ablated.

Risks and side effects

Radiofrequency ablation is regarded as a safe medical procedure, but side effects and complications are still possible. In some cases, you may experience:

  • Discomfort
  • Fever
  • General unwell feeling
  • Infection at the treatment site

You may also feel some pain where the needle was inserted for the treatment, but this should subside within a few days.

If you have RFA for treatment of lung cancer, there’s a small risk of bleeding or collapsing of the lungs. For RFA in the kidneys, there’s a chance of seeing blood in your urine after the procedure.

If you feel like something is wrong when you’re at home recovering, always call your doctor right away. In particular, let your care team know if you experience:

  • Signs of infection (such as fever or chills)
  • Excessive bleeding from the treated area
  • Bloody cough
  • Severe pain

Will I need additional treatment?

A few weeks after the procedure, your doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or CT scan. This is to check whether the tumors are gone or shrunken in size, a good indicator of the treatment’s success.

If the tumors are still present, your care team may discuss another course of radiofrequency ablation or suggest other treatment options.

Your care team is there to help you along every step of the way, so it’s OK to ask questions or seek clarification at any time during the process.

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