Ablation or Embolization Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer

These treatments are different ways of destroying tumors, rather than removing them with surgery.

When might one of these treatments be used?

Ablation or embolization can sometimes be used to help treat pancreatic cancer that has spread to other organs, especially the liver. But these treatments are very unlikely to cure cancers on their own. They are more likely to be used to help prevent or relieve symptoms, and are often used along with other types of treatment.

  • Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs): When NETs have spread to other sites, these treatments can often improve symptoms and help people live longer.
  • Exocrine pancreas cancers: These treatments are used much less often for exocrine cancers (which account for most pancreatic cancers), but they might sometimes be used when there are only a few areas of spread to treat.

Ablative treatments

Ablation refers to treatments that destroy tumors, usually with extreme heat or cold. Typically, with this type of treatment you will not need to stay in the hospital. There are different kinds of ablative treatments:

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA): This procedure uses high-energy radio waves for treatment. The doctor puts a thin, needle-like probe through the skin and into the tumor. An electric current then passes through the tip of the probe, which heats the tumor and destroys the cancer cells. This treatment is used mainly for small tumors.

Microwave thermotherapy: This procedure is similar to RFA, except microwaves are used to heat and destroy the tumor.

Cryosurgery (also known as cryotherapy or cryoablation): This procedure destroys a tumor by freezing it. A thin metal probe is guided into the tumor, and very cold gasses pass through the probe to freeze the tumor, killing the cancer cells. This method can be used to treat larger tumors than the other ablation techniques, but it sometimes requires general anesthesia (where you are put into a deep sleep and not able to feel pain).

Side effects of ablation treatments

Possible side effects after ablation therapy include abdominal pain, infection, and bleeding inside the body. Serious complications are uncommon, but they are possible.


During embolization, the doctor injects substances into an artery to try to block the blood flow to cancer cells, causing them to die. This can sometimes be used for tumors in the liver that are too large to be treated with ablation. This type of treatment typically does not require a hospital stay.

There are 3 main types of embolization:

Arterial embolization: This is also known as trans-arterial embolization (or TAE). In this procedure a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) is put into an artery through a small cut in the inner thigh and threaded up into the artery feeding the tumor. A dye is usually injected into the blood at this time to help the doctor monitor the path of the catheter with angiography, a special type of x-ray. Once the catheter is in place, small particles are injected into the artery to plug it up.

Chemoembolization: This approach, also known as trans-arterial chemoembolization (or TACE) combines embolization with chemotherapy. Most often, this is done by using tiny beads that give off a chemotherapy drug for the embolization. TACE can also be done by giving chemotherapy through the catheter directly into the artery, then plugging up the artery.

Radioembolization: This technique combines embolization with radiation therapy. In the United States, this is done by injecting small radioactive beads (called microspheres) into the artery. The beads lodge in the blood vessels near the tumor, where they give off small amounts of radiation to the tumor site for several days. The radiation travels a very short distance, so its effects are limited mainly to the tumor.

Side effects of embolization

Possible complications after embolization include abdominal pain, fever, nausea, infection, and blood clots in nearby blood vessels. Serious complications are not common, but they can happen.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: March 14, 2016 Last Revised: May 31, 2016

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