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Kidney Cancer: Ablation Therapy

What is ablation therapy?

Ablation therapy is a type of treatment that kills cancer cells. There are 2 main types of ablation therapy used to treat kidney cancer:

  • Radiofrequency ablation(RFA). This uses high-energy waves to heat and kill cancer cells.

  • Cryoablation. This uses extreme cold to kill cancer cells.

Both types are done by putting a needle-like probe into the tumor. The probe is put in through your skin. An ultrasound or CT scan is used to guide it to the tumor. This treatment doesn't cause a lot of damage to nearby tissues. But sometimes more than 1 treatment is needed.

A newer treatment

Ablation therapy is a newer treatment for kidney cancer. It's not yet clear how well it compares with surgery. You may need preapproval from your insurance company to get this kind of treatment. Be sure to ask about this before getting ablation therapy.

When might radiofrequency ablation (RFA) be used for kidney cancer?

Your healthcare provider may advise RFA if 1 or more of the below applies to you:

  • You have 1 or more kidney tumors.

  • You have only 1 kidney.

  • Your other kidney is not working well.

  • You have other health conditions that make you unable to have surgery.

  • You're an older adult and surgery would be too difficult for you.

  • The tumor is small.

  • The cancer is on the kidney's surface and not too close to other organs.

  • The cancer has spread to other organs, such as your lungs or liver.

  • You have cancer that has come back, or you have more than 1 kidney tumor.

  • You have a family history of multiple kidney tumors.

  • You'll have surgery, but need RFA to treat the tumor area to help prevent bleeding during surgery.

When might cryoablation (cryotherapy) be used for kidney cancer?

Your healthcare provider may advise cryoablation if 1 or more of the below applies to you:

  • Your tumor is small.

  • You're an older adult and surgery would be too difficult for you.

  • You have only 1 kidney and you need to keep it.

What are the possible risks of ablation therapy?

All procedures have risks. The risks of ablation therapy include:

  • Pain that requires pain medicine

  • Infection where the probe is put into the body

  • Damage to the treated kidney

  • Damage to other nearby parts of your body (depends on where the tumor is)

Talk with your healthcare provider about which risks apply most to you.

Before the procedure

  • Your healthcare provider will likely do blood tests to make sure that your blood clots normally and to see how well your liver and kidneys are working.

  • Tell your healthcare provider about all the medicines, herbs, and supplements you're taking. He or she may ask that you stop using some of these for a time before the procedure. These kinds of medicines include blood thinners, aspirin, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, like ibuprofen.

  • Tell your healthcare provider about any allergies that you may have. This includes allergies to anesthesia or contrast dye.

  • Tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or think you might be pregnant.

  • Your healthcare provider will tell you not to eat or drink anything starting the night before the treatment.

  • Arrange for someone to drive you home after the procedure.

During the procedure

This procedure will be done by an interventional radiologist. He or she will work with your urologist during your treatment. The procedure may follow these basic steps:      

  • You'll be given a gown to wear and will lie on an exam table.

  • Your blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse might be tracked during the procedure.

  • If anesthesia is needed, the nurse will put an IV (intravenous) line in your arm or hand in order to give you this medicine.

  • Your healthcare provider will clean the skin where the probe will go in. You'll be injected with a medicine that numbs the area (local anesthetic).

  • A small cut will be made in your skin. The probe will be put in there. In some cases, the healthcare provider may need to make more than 1 cut.

  • The healthcare provider will use imaging to help guide the probe to the tumor. This may be done with a CT scan or ultrasound.

  • For RFA, a high-frequency electrical current will be sent through the probe to kill the cancer cells. Your healthcare provider may need to do this at more than 1 site. For cryoablation, the probe’s tip will release a very cold gas to freeze the tumor and kill the cancer cells. 

  • At the end of the procedure, the probe is removed. The skin is covered with a bandage.

After the procedure

The procedure takes 1 to 3 hours. You'll wake up in a recovery room and stay there until you're fully awake and ready to go home. You'll likely be able to go home the same day. You may have mild pain or nausea. Your healthcare provider may treat these with medicines.

You can go back to normal activity after a few days.

Working with your healthcare provider

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for after treatment and when to call them. Make sure you know what number to call with questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.