Radiofrequency ablation is a treatment that uses radio waves to create heat and directs the heat though a needle probe at cancer cells to destroy tumors.


Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is minimally invasive, meaning it involves having to enter the body with a needle rather than an incision, as with major surgery. Because of this and its ability to create heat in a specific location, RFA is a good treatment choice for patients with many different types of cancer.

Liver Tumors

One of the cancers treated most by RFA is cancer of the liver. In many cases, removing the tumor with surgery would not leave enough healthy tissue for the liver to still function. Primary liver tumors such as hepatomas in patient with hepatitis or liver tumors that spread (metastasize) from cancers that started somewhere else in the body are good candidates for RFA. In some cases, a previous attempt to treat the tumor, such as with chemotherapy, has failed and RFA is the next option. RFA also might be used to treat a tumor that has recurred. Severe liver disease or other factors may make surgery an increased risk to certain patients and RFA can be a good alternative.

Kidney Tumors

Many patients with kidney tumors have surgery, but some patients only have one kidney, making RFA the preferred treatment, since it helps spare the remaining kidney. As with other organs, RFA is an excellent alternative for patients who have conditions that might prevent them from having surgery or for whom recovery from surgery would be difficult. RFA for kidney (renal) cancer is an excellent choice for patients with more than one tumor, if the tumors are small.

Lung Tumors

Radiofrequency ablation of the lung can be performed for either primary lung tumors or metastases. The disease must be localized for successful treatment. The same precautions are taken for RFA of the lung.

Bone Tumors

RFA has been shown to be highly effective in treatment of a particular benign but painful bone tumor called osteoid osteoma. A bone biopsy needle is placed into this bone tumor and then RFA of the this tumor is completed. Pain is usually relieved within 6 weeks of treatment.


RFA is safe for most patients, and generally can be used in place of surgery for patients who cannot withstand longer surgical procedures, complications, and recovery times. Still, physicians will discuss the benefits and risks of RFA, and alternatives to this procedure, with patients in advance. The procedure usually will require some anesthesia. A medical history and blood tests may rule out some patients or require them to adjust certain medications. Also, some tumors or cancers are not considered treatable with RFA. The number and size of tumors that can be treated in a particular organ may be limited.


The patient lies on a table in an examination or surgical suite and becomes a sort of electrical circuit. The radiologist usually uses ultrasound, but sometimes computed tomography (CT) during the procedure to guide the needle placement into the tumor. Most interventional radiologists guide the small needle or probe that holds the current through the patient's skin and directly into the tumor. This is called the percutaneous method and will make for an easier recovery. Once the physician has positioned the tumor, the electrode delivers heat to a larger area.

The heat can be controlled by the physician. A small needle can accurately heat a precise area. If a tumor is large, the radiologist may have to guide and reposition the probe several times to destroy the entire tumor. After destroying the tumor, the physician also will use the probe to heat and destroy a small margin or rim of healthy tissue around the cancerous tumor. This helps ensure that no single cancerous cell is left behind that can regrow. After the treatment is completed, a small bandage is placed over the probe insertion site. Each RFA treatment takes 30 minutes, but the entire procedure can take longer, depending on the number of tumors, tumor size, and location. For instance, the radiologist may have to reposition the probe several times for one liver mass, then turn to a second smaller mass, increasing the procedure time.

Since some pain can be associated with RFA, most physicians will insert an intravenous (IV) line in the patient through which they will give anesthesia. However, general anesthesia which “puts the patient to sleep” is often used at our institution.


Before the RFA procedure, patients may have blood drawn for routine blood tests. The physician, nurse, or scheduler will provide preparation instructions that will include concerns about eating or drinking before the procedure. These instructions will depend on the type of anesthesia planned. Normally, patients will be told not to eat or drink eight hours (or after midnight) before the RFA procedure. Certain medications may need to be changed or stopped before the procedure. For example, blood thinners and aspirin may interfere with the procedure and usually must be stopped.


The treatment team will move the patient to a recovery room following the procedure to allow anesthesia to wear off and to receive pain medication as needed. Some patients also have nausea and will receive medications and instructions for nausea and pain care before leaving the facility. Patients will have to remain in bed for the first few hours following the procedure, and usually stay overnight from RFA.

Other Things to Expect

  1. Once the patient returns home, they should drink plenty of fluid.
  2. Mild pain may continue and may require prescription medication for the first day or two.
  3. Patients should not drive a car or make important decisions for 24 hours after the procedure because of anesthesia effects.
  4. Excessive physical activity is also discouraged. However, most patients can resume normal diet, physical activity, and sexual activity within a few days of RFA.
  5. Often the patient will be given an antibiotic to take by mouth for 5 days.


The risks associated with radiofrequency ablation are relatively minor compared to those associated with many other cancer treatments, particularly surgery. However, no procedure is risk-free. Some risks include:

  1. Serious injury if the needle makes a hole (perforates) a nearby organ. If this happens, the patient may require surgery to repair the injury.
  2. There also is a minor risk of infection at the site where the probe is inserted.
  3. Patients may experience bruising or bleeding. Bleeding could require transfusion or catheter embolization or surgery.
  4. If the lesion is in the liver and next to the diaphragm, this may cause pain in the abdomen or the right shoulder.
  5. There is risk of death from any procedure or from general anesthesia. The risk of death is in the range of 1 in 300.

Normal Results

Results vary, depending on the location, type, and size of tumor. Normally, scar tissue replaces the tumor cells destroyed by RFA and shrinks over a period of time. Patients should have no pain from the procedure after a few days. The patient will have a follow-up CT scan the day after the procedure and usually in 3 months.

Abnormal Results

  1. If pain continues for more than a few days, the patient should contact the physician.
  2. Some patients also develop flu-like symptoms and fever following RFA that can last for a few weeks. This may be normal. If the fever or flu-like symptoms are severe, then the patient should contact a physician.
  3. Bleeding after RFA has been reported. If it continues and is severe, the patient may have to return for an additional RFA procedure or surgery to control the bleeding.
  4. Sometimes, cancer recurs following RFA because tumors are so tiny they cannot be seen. Some patients will need another RFA procedure in the future.
  5. RFA of the lung or high liver lesions may cause a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) which could require insertion of a chest tube.
  6. For any concerns, the patient should contact the physician.