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Ablation or Embolization Treatments for Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor

Ablation and embolization 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 neuroendocrine tumor (NET) that has spread to other organs, especially the liver. When pancreatic NETs have spread to other sites, these treatments can often reduce tumor size and improve symptoms. 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.

Ablative treatments (ablation)

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.  There are different kinds of ablative treatments:

  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses high-energy radio waves. A thin, needle-like probe is put through the skin and into the tumor. Placement of the probe is guided by an ultrasound or CT scan. 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 with concentrated alcohol injected directly into the tumor. This is usually done using a needle through the skin, 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 an 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 asleep).

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, 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 5cm 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 threading it up into the hepatic artery feeding the tumor. Blood flow is blocked (or reduced) by injecting materials to 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 for several days. Since the radiation travels a very short distance, 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 oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Neuroendocrine and Adrenal Tumors. V.2.2018. Accessed at on October 5, 2018.

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Last Revised: October 30, 2018

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