Liver Cancer

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Treating Liver Cancer TOPICS

Tumor ablation for liver cancer

Ablation refers to treatments that destroy liver tumors without removing them. These techniques are often used in patients with no more than a few small tumors but for whom surgery is not a good option (often because of poor health or reduced liver function). They are less likely to cure the cancer than surgery, but they can still be very helpful for some people. These treatments are also sometimes used in patients waiting for a liver transplant.

Ablation is best used for tumors no larger than about 3 cm across (a little over an inch). For slightly larger tumors (3 to 5 cm across), it may be used along with embolization (see next section). Because ablation often destroys some of the normal tissue around the tumor, it might not be a good choice for treating tumors near major blood vessels, the diaphragm, or major bile ducts.

This type of treatment typically does not require a hospital stay. Often, ablation can be done without surgery by inserting a needle or probe into the tumor through the skin. The needle or probe is guided into place with ultrasound or CT scanning. Sometimes, though, to be sure the treatment is aimed at the right place, it may be done during surgery.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

This procedure uses high-energy radio waves for treatment. The doctor inserts a thin, needle-like probe into the tumor. A high-frequency current is then passed through the tip of the probe, which heats the tumor and destroys the cancer cells. This is a common treatment method for small tumors.

Ethanol (alcohol) ablation

This is also known as percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI). In this procedure, concentrated alcohol is injected directly into the tumor to kill cancer cells.

Microwave thermotherapy

In this procedure, microwaves transmitted through the probe are used to heat and destroy the abnormal tissue.

Cryosurgery (cryotherapy)

This procedure destroys a tumor by freezing it using a thin metal probe. The probe is guided into the tumor and then very cold gasses are passed through the probe to freeze the tumor, killing the cancer cells. This method may be used to treat larger tumors than the other ablation techniques, but it sometimes requires general anesthesia (where you are deeply asleep and not able to feel pain).

Side effects of ablation therapy

Possible side effects after ablation therapy include abdominal pain, infection in the liver, and bleeding into the chest cavity or abdomen. Serious complications are uncommon, but they are possible.


Last Medical Review: 11/18/2014
Last Revised: 12/05/2014