Tumour ablation for kidney cancer

Tumour ablation uses heat or cold to destroy cancer cells. It may be used to treat small cancers instead of surgery.

What is tumour ablation?

Tumour ablation is a type of treatment that uses extreme temperatures to destroy small tumours. This treatment may be used if you have a small tumour, and are not fit enough to have surgery or choose not to have it.

Tumour ablation preserves more of the kidney than kidney‑sparing surgery. So it may be used for people who have only one kidney. It can also be an option for people who have an inherited form of kidney cancer that causes multiple tumours, or if cancer is affecting both kidneys.

Tumour ablation generally causes fewer side effects and has a quicker recovery time than surgery for kidney cancer. But there is a slightly higher risk of some cancer remaining in the kidney. The benefits of avoiding surgery and sparing more of the kidney need to be balanced against this risk. Your cancer doctor will talk to you about the risks and benefits if this treatment is an option for you.

There are different methods for destroying the tumour. The two most commonly used treatments are:

  • cryotherapy, which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the tumour
  • radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which uses an electric current to produce high temperatures to destroy the tumour.

Other methods of tumour ablation may be used in clinical trials. These include:

  • microwave ablation
  • laser ablation
  • high‑intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about tumour ablation.

Having tumour ablation for kidney cancer

The doctor or nurse will give you a sedative before the treatment. This will make you feel drowsy. They will also use a local anaesthetic to numb the area over the kidney. Some people may have the treatment under a general anaesthetic.

Next you will have an ultrasound or CT scan. These scans guide the doctor to the right area of the kidney. The scans also help them monitor what is happening during your treatment. Sometimes the doctor will make a small cut and use a laparoscope to look inside the body. A laparoscope is a thin tube with a light and a camera that sends video images to a monitor.

The doctor then places one or more fine probes through the skin (percutaneously) into the kidney, close to the tumour.

Tumour ablation

The probes freeze or heat the tumour. The extreme temperature destroys the cancer cells. The doctor will also aim to destroy a small area of healthy tissue (about 1cm) around the tumour. This is to try to make sure no cancer cells are left behind to grow back again.

Close-up tumour ablation


Side effects of tumour ablation for kidney cancer

You will probably have some pain or discomfort at the treatment site. Your doctor will give you painkillers to take regularly for a few days.

Sometimes people feel sick immediately after tumour ablation. If this happens, tell your nurse or doctor. They can give you anti‑sickness drugs.

You may feel a little unwell for the first few days and have a slightly raised temperature. You will probably also feel tired. Drinking plenty of fluids will help. If your temperature does not return to normal, or if it goes above 38°C (100.4°F), contact your doctor, as this may be due to infection.

You may notice some blood in your urine (pee). This should disappear after a few days.

You usually stay in bed for 4 to 6 hours after the treatment. Most people go home the day after treatment and feel well enough to go back to their usual activities within a few days.

Possible complications after tumour ablation

The risk of complications after tumour ablation is low.

Possible complications include the following:

  • Infection – you may be given antibiotics to reduce the risk of this happening.
  • Bleeding – you will be monitored during the treatment and for a few hours afterwards.
  • A narrowing of the tube connecting the kidney to the bladder (ureter). This can cause problems passing urine (peeing).

You will have a scan after treatment to check for any complications. These can be treated straight away if needed.

You will have regular follow-up scans to check the kidney for any signs of the cancer growing back.