Tumour ablation for lung cancer

Tumour ablation treatments are sometimes used to treat early-stage lung cancer. These include radiofrequency ablation and photodynamic therapy.

What is tumour ablation?

Tumour ablation involves treatments that destroy cancer cells using:

  • heat (radiofrequency or microwave ablation)
  • laser light (photodynamic therapy).

Doctors sometimes use these treatments for very early stage lung cancer, if surgery is not suitable. This is usually when someone has other lung conditions or chooses not to have surgery.

Other ablation treatments are used to relieve breathlessness when the cancer is blocking the airways into the lungs. We have more information about controlling symptoms of lung cancer.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

RFA uses heat to destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes given at the same time as radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Before having RFA, you may have a local anaesthetic and sedative to make you sleepy. Some people have a general anaesthetic. You usually need to stay in hospital overnight to have the treatment. You might have RFA for one or more sessions.

The doctor puts a needle into the tumour. They usually use a CT scan to make sure it is in the right place. An electrical current (radio-waves) passes through the needle into the tumour. The current heats the cancer cells to a high temperature. This destroys (ablates) them.

You may have some pain or discomfort after having RFA. You will be given painkillers to control this. You may also feel tired afterwards.

Always contact your doctor if you become more breathless after having RFA. 

We have more information about radiofrequency ablation (RFA).

Microwave ablation

Microwave ablation is done in a similar way to RFA. The doctor sends microwave energy through the needle and into the tumour. This heats and destroys the cancer cells.

We have more information about ablation.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

This treatment destroys cancer cells using lasers or other light sources, together with a light-sensitive drug. You can have PDT on its own, but you are more likely to have it with other treatments.

PDT is only available at some hospitals.

How is PDT given?

You have PDT in two stages:

  • First, a nurse gives you a light-sensitive drug as an injection into a vein. They do this at the hospital. The drug makes the cancer cells more sensitive to the laser.
  • Second, you have the laser light treatment. This is done a few hours after the light-sensitive drug is injected. This gives it time to be taken up by the cancer cells. The doctor may give you a drug to help you to relax. Then they direct the laser light at the tumour using a bronchoscope. The laser makes the light-sensitive drug destroy cancer cells.

Side effects of PDT

The light-sensitive drug makes you temporarily sensitive to light. You may need to avoid bright light, by covering your skin and wearing sunglasses in daylight. How long you need to do this for depends on the drug you have. The nurse will explain what you need to do.

Side effects of PDT include breathlessness and a cough. Your doctor can give you more information. 

We have more information about PDT.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our lung cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at  cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Lung cancer – Diagnosis and management. Clinical guideline 2019.

    Metastatic non-small cell lung cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2018.

    European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO). Early and locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC): ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2017.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr David Gilligan, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

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