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Ablation and embolization treatments are different ways of destroying tumors, rather than removing them with surgery. They are used much less often for pancreatic cancers but can sometimes be used to help treat pancreatic cancer that has spread to other organs, especially the liver.
These treatments are very unlikely to cure cancers on their own. They are more likely to be used to help prevent or relieve symptoms, when there are only a few areas of spread, and are often used along with other types of treatment.
Ablation refers to treatments that destroy tumors, usually with extreme heat or cold. They are generally best for tumors no more than about 2 cm (a little less than an inch) across. 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) uses high-energy radio waves for treatment. A thin, needle-like probe is put through the skin and into the tumor. Placement of the probe is guided by ultrasound or CT scans. The tip of the probe releases a high-frequency electric current which heats the tumor and destroys the cancer cells.
Microwave thermotherapy is similar to RFA, except it uses microwaves to heat and destroy the cancer cells.
Ethanol (alcohol) ablation (also known as percutaneous ethanol injection) kills the cancer cells by injecting concentrated alcohol directly into the tumor. This is usually done through the skin using a needle guided by ultrasound or CT scans.
Cryosurgery (also known as cryotherapy or cryoablation) destroys a tumor by freezing it with a thin metal probe. The probe is guided through the skin and into the tumor, using ultrasound. 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 put into a deep sleep).
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, substances are injected into an artery to try to block the blood flow to cancer cells, causing them to die. This may be used for larger tumors (up to about 5 cm or 2 inches across) in the liver.
There are 3 main types of embolization:
Arterial embolization (also known as trans-arterial embolization or TAE) involves putting a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) into an artery through a small cut in the inner thigh and threaded up into the hepatic artery feeding the tumor. Blood flow is blocked (or reduced) by injecting materials that plug up that artery. Most of the healthy liver cells will not be affected because they get their blood supply from a different blood vessel, the portal vein.
Chemoembolization (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 during the embolization. TACE can also be done by giving chemotherapy through the catheter directly into the artery, then plugging up the artery.
Radioembolization combines embolization with radiation therapy. In the United States, this is done by injecting small radioactive beads (called microspheres) into the hepatic artery. The beads lodge in the blood vessels near the tumor, where they give off small amounts of radiation to the tumor site. Since the radiation travels a very short distance, its effects are limited mainly to the tumor.
Possible side effects 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 oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Cho CS, Lubner SJ, Kavanagh BD. Chapter 125: Metastatic Cancer to the Liver. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.
Shah R, Ostapoff KT, Kuvshinoff B, and Hochwald SN. Ablative Therapies for Locally Advanced Pancreatic Cancer. Pancreas. 2018 Jan;47(1):6-11. doi: 10.1097/MPA.0000000000000948.
Sherman KL and Mahvi DM. Chapter 53: Liver Metastases. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2014.
Last Revised: February 11, 2019
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