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Radiofrequency Ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive treatment procedure that utilizes electrical energy and heat to destroy cancerous cells. High-frequency electrical currents are passed through a specialized needle to heat a tumor and kill cancerous cells. Multiple tumors can be heated and destroyed during one procedure, with each tumor taking approximately 30 minutes to treat. 

There are various techniques used for RFA treatments. Your doctor will decide which approach is best depending on the size, location, number, and severity of your tumor(s). 

  • Percutaneous – a thin needle is passed through the skin and guided into the tumor. This technique requires light sedation, and you can typically go home the same day. 
  • Laparoscopic – several small incisions are made to allow for the insertion of a needle and imaging probes. This technique requires general sedation, and you can typically go home the following day. 
  • Open surgery – RFA can be performed during open surgery, which allows your doctor to visualize the tumor(s) before and during the procedure. Additionally, other tumors may be removed at the same time as an open RFA procedure. This technique requires general sedation and a slightly longer hospital stay.

A CT scan or MRI is usually performed a few weeks after the procedure to see if your tumors have responded to treatment or if more treatment is necessary. In some cases, you may receive scans every three to four months to monitor for recurrence. 

When is it Used and Why

The radiofrequency ablation procedure is usually only considered as a treatment option if you’re not a good surgical candidate – for instance, if surgery would be difficult due to the tumor positioning or if you’re unable to have surgery due to other health issues. RFA is typically used to treat tumors that are up to 5 cm. Radiofrequency ablation only treats tumors in the area of the needle’s insertion and has no treatment effect on other cancer cells in the body. This is why RFA may be used in combination with other cancer treatment options to reach distant cancer cells in the body.

In some cases, when tumors have not responded to chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, RFA may be used to destroy these tumors with heat.

To determine if RFA is right for your tumor, a CT scan or MRI may be necessary. In some cases, there may be too many tumors, or the tumor may be too large to treat with RFA. 

What Types of Cancer Does Radiofrequency Ablation Treat

Although radiofrequency ablation can be used to treat cancers of the breast, adrenal gland, bone, kidney, lung, liver, pancreas, and thyroid, it is most often used for the treatment of:

  • Primary cancer of the liver. 
  • Liver metastases. 
  • Kidney cancer.
  • Lung metastases.
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Additionally, RFA may also be used to treat esophageal precancerous cells associated with Barrett’s esophagus. 

Pros and Cons  

As with any medical treatment, there are pros and cons of radiofrequency ablation, including:


  • Short hospital stay as the procedure is minimally invasive.
  • Reduce the size or eliminate tumors.
  • It can be used for tumors up to 5 cm. 
  • It can be used on new or recurrent tumors.
  • There are few side effects or associated complications. 


  • Pain or discomfort in the treatment area. 
  • Blood in the urine (following RFA to the kidney).
  • Possible low-grade fever following the procedure that can last for a few days. 
  • Low risk of bleeding, skin burns, fluid accumulation, injury to the structures in the area, and/or infection.

If you have a fever that does not subside with fever-reducing medications, or if you have other symptoms of infection, including chills, warmth, redness, or drainage in the area of needle insertion, call your doctor immediately.

Effectiveness of Radiofrequency Ablation

Radiofrequency ablation is most commonly considered a palliative treatment option. This means it can help relieve pain and other symptoms associated with the tumor and improve your quality of life, as opposed to curing your cancer. That being said, for some types of cancer, RFA ablation can help to improve the chance of survival. 


The radiofrequency ablation procedure is a minimally invasive treatment option that utilizes high-frequency energy to heat and destroy cancerous tumors in the body. While it can be used on a variety of cancers, it’s most commonly used for the treatment of primary liver cancer, liver metastases, kidney cancer, and lung metastasis. Even though RFA is not typically considered curative, it can help to reduce pain and associated cancer symptoms with minimal side effects to help improve the quality of life of cancer patients.