Our 24/7 cancer helpline provides information and answers for people dealing with cancer. We can connect you with trained cancer information specialists who will answer questions about a cancer diagnosis and provide guidance and a compassionate ear.
Our highly trained specialists are available 24/7 via phone and on weekdays can assist through video calls and online chat. We connect patients, caregivers, and family members with essential services and resources at every step of their cancer journey. Ask us how you can get involved and support the fight against cancer. Some of the topics we can assist with include:
For medical questions, we encourage you to review our information with your doctor.
Hyperthermia usually is taken to mean a body temperature that is higher than normal. High body temperatures are often caused by illnesses, such as fever or heat stroke. But hyperthermia can also refer to heat treatment – the carefully controlled use of heat for medical purposes. Here, we will focus on how heat is used to treat cancer.
When cells in the body are exposed to higher than normal temperatures, changes take place inside the cells. These changes can make the cells more likely to be affected by other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Very high temperatures can kill cancer cells outright (thermal ablation), but they also can injure or kill normal cells and tissues. This is why hyperthermia must be carefully controlled and should be done by doctors who are experienced in using it.
Current instruments can deliver heat precisely, and hyperthermia is being used (or studied for use) against many types of cancer.
Treatment can be local, regional or whole-body hyperthermia, depending on the extent of the area being treated.
Local hyperthermia is used to heat a small area like a tumor. Very high temperatures are used to kill the cancer cells and destroy nearby blood vessels. In effect, this cooks the area that is exposed to the heat. And, as with cooking, the higher the temperature and duration of exposure, the greater the effect seen within tissues. Thermal ablation comprises the treatments where very high temperatures cause irreversible damage to cells whereas smaller rises in temperature constitute mild hyperthermia. Radio waves, microwaves, ultrasound waves, and other forms of energy can be used to heat the area. When ultrasound is used, the technique is called high intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU, sometimes also referred to as just focused ultrasound.
The heat may be applied in different ways:
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA): This is probably the most commonly used type of thermal ablation. RFA uses high-energy radio waves for treatment. A thin, needle-like probe is inserted into the tumor for a short time, usually about 10 to 30 minutes. The probe is guided into place using ultrasound, MRI, or CT scans. The tip of the probe puts out a high-frequency current that creates very high heat and destroys the cells within a certain area. The dead cells are not removed, but become scar tissue and shrink over time.
RFA is most often used to treat tumors that cannot be removed with surgery or for patients who are not able to go through the stresses of surgery. It can usually be done as an outpatient. RFA may be repeated for tumors that come back or start to grow. It can also be added to other treatments like surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hepatic arterial infusion therapy, alcohol ablation, or chemoembolization.
RFA can be used to treat tumors up to about 2 inches (5 cm) across. It is most commonly used to treat tumors in the liver, kidneys, and lungs, and is being studied for use in other areas of the body. Long-term outcomes after RFA treatment are not yet known, but early results are encouraging.
In regional hyperthermia a part of the body, such as an organ, limb, or body cavity (a hollow space within the body) is heated. It isn’t hot enough to destroy the cancer cells outright. It’s usually combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
In one approach, called regional perfusion or isolation perfusion, the blood supply to a part of the body is isolated from the rest of the circulation. The blood in that part of the body is pumped into a heating device and then pumped back into the area to heat it. Chemotherapy can be pumped in at the same time. This technique is being studied as treatment for certain cancers in the arms or legs, such as sarcomas and melanomas.
Another hyperthermia technique can be used along with surgery to treat cancers in the peritoneum (the space in the body that contains the intestines and other digestive organs). During surgery, heated chemotherapy drugs are circulated through the peritoneal cavity. This is called continuous hyperthermic peritoneal perfusion (CHPP), also known as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). In studies, this has seemed helpful in treating certain types of cancer, but it isn’t yet clear if it is better than other types of treatments.
Another approach to regional hyperthermia is deep tissue hyperthermia. This treatment uses devices that are placed on the surface of the organ or body cavity and produce high energy waves directed at a certain area. These devices give off radiofrequency or microwave energy to heat the area being treated.
Whole-body heating is being studied as a way to make chemotherapy work better in treating cancer that has spread (metastatic cancer). Body temperature can be raised by using heating blankets, warm-water immersion (putting the patient in warm water), or thermal chambers (much like large incubators). People getting whole-body hyperthermia are sometimes given sedation (medicine to make them feel calm and sleepy) or even light anesthesia.
A person’s body temperature may be raised as if they had a fever, which is sometimes called fever-range whole-body hyperthermia. Studies suggest that this may cause certain immune cells to become more active for the next few hours and raise the levels of cell-killing compounds in the blood. Some researchers take the body temperature higher, around 107° F, for short periods of time. Other studies are testing hyperthermia and chemotherapy along with other treatments that are designed to boost the person’s immune system to help fight cancer.
The possible side effects of hyperthermia depend on the technique being used and the part of the body being treated. Most side effects don’t last long, but some can be serious.
Local hyperthermia, such as RFA, can destroy tumors without surgery. Scientists agree that it works best when the area being treated is kept within an exact temperature range for a precise period of time. But this isn’t always easy to do. Right now it is hard to accurately measure the temperature inside a tumor. And keeping an area at a constant temperature without affecting nearby tissues can be tricky, too. To add to this, not all body tissues respond the same way to heat – some are more sensitive than others. For example, the brain is very sensitive to heat, even the lower temperatures used in whole-body hyperthermia.
Doctors are finding better ways of monitoring the temperature at the site being treated. Small thermometers on the ends of probes can be placed in the treatment areas to be sure the temperature stays within the desired range. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a newer way to monitor temperature without putting in probes.
Local hyperthermia can cause pain at the site, infection, bleeding, blood clots, swelling, burns, blistering, and damage to the skin, muscles, and nerves near the treated area.
The major advantage of regional and whole-body hyperthermia is that they seem to make other forms of cancer treatment work better. Heating cancer cells to temperatures above normal makes them easier to destroy using radiation and certain chemotherapy drugs. But careful temperature control is a must with any type of hyperthermia.
Side effects depend on what part of the body is treated and how high the temperature is raised. Whole-body and regional hyperthermia can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. More serious, though rare, side effects can include problems with the heart, blood vessels, and other major organs.
Since regional and whole-body hyperthermia are often given with other cancer treatments such as chemo and radiation, side effects from these treatments may be seen then or at a later time.
Experience, improved technology, and better skills in using hyperthermia treatment have led to fewer side effects. In most cases, the problems that people have with hyperthermia are not serious.
Hyperthermia is a promising way to improve cancer treatment, but it is largely an experimental technique at this time. It requires special equipment, and a doctor and treatment team who are skilled in using it. Because of that, it’s not offered in all cancer treatment centers.
Many clinical trials of hyperthermia are being done to better understand and improve this technique. Researchers continue to look at how hyperthermia is best used along with other cancer treatments to improve outcomes.
Studies are also looking at ways to reach deeper organs and other sites that cannot be treated with hyperthermia at this time. Current studies are looking at how it might work to treat many types of cancer, including the following:
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Alexander HR Jr. Isolation Perfusion. In DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. Cancer Principles and Practice of Oncology, 8th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins: 2008: 701-710.
Benjamin R, Pisters PWT, Helman LJ, et al. Sarcomas of Soft Tissue. In Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology, 4th edition. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone: 2008: 2009-2056.
Brennan MF, Singer S, Maki RG, O'Sullivan B. Sarcomas of the soft tissue and bone. In DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. Cancer Principles and Practice of Oncology, 8th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins: 2008: 1774-1775.
Bull JM, Scott GL, Strebel FR, et al. Fever-range whole-body thermal therapy combined with cisplatin, gemcitabine, and daily interferon-alpha: a description of a phase I-II protocol. Int J Hyperthermia. 2008;24:649-662.
Dariush S, Nicolae V. (2011). Cancer Treatment with Hyperthermia, Current Cancer Treatment - Novel Beyond Conventional Approaches, Prof. Oner Ozdemir (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-397-2, InTech, Accessed at www.intechopen.com/books/current-cancer-treatment-novel-beyond-conventionalapproaches/cancer-treatment-with-hyperthermia on June 13, 2013
Dewhirst MW, Jones E, Samulski T, et al. Hyperthermia. In Kufe DW, Bast RC, Hait WN, et al, eds. Cancer Medicine. 7th ed. Hamilton, Ontario: BC Decker Inc: 2006: 549-561.
Duprat Neto JP, Oliveira F, Bertolli E, et al. Isolated limb perfusion with hyperthermia and chemotherapy: predictive factors for regional toxicity. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2012;67:237-241.
Gillams A. Tumour ablation: current role in the liver, kidney, lung and bone. Cancer Imaging. 2008;8 Spec No A:S1-5.
Lewinsky BS, Zimmerman RP. Radiation Therapy: An Overview of Recent Advances and Future Innovations. In Silberman H, Silberman AW, eds. Principles and Practice of Surgical Oncology. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins: 2010: 219-230.
National Cancer Institute, Clinical Trials. Hyperthermia (search). Accessed at www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials/search on June 13, 2013.
National Cancer Institute. Hyperthermia in Cancer Treatment: Questions and Answers. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/hyperthermia on June 13, 2013.
National Cancer Institute. Radiofrequency Ablation Making Inroads as Cancer Treatment. In NCI Cancer Bulletin, July 19, 2005, Vol 2 No 29. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/aboutnci/ncicancerbulletin/archive/2005/071905/page3 on June 13, 2013.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Hyperthermia: Using Heat to Treat Cancer. Accessed at www.nccn.com/component/content/article/60-treatment/932-hyperthermia-treatment.html on June 17, 2013.
NIH Clinical Center. Radiofrequency Thermal Ablation as Tumor Therapy. Accessed at www.cc.nih.gov/drd/references.html on June 13, 2013.
Palazzi M, Maluta S, Dall’Oglio S, Romano M. The role of hyperthermia in the battle against cancer. Tumori. 2010;96:902-910.
Sulyok I, Fleischmann E, Stift A, et al. Effect of preoperative fever-range whole-body hyperthermia on immunological markers in patients undergoing colorectal cancer surgery. Br J Anaesth. 2012;109:754-761.
Szasz A. Hyperthermia, a modality in the wings. J Can Res Ther. 2007;3:56-66.
Last Revised: May 3, 2016