Health Team

Heat Can Replace Scalpel in Attacking Tumors

Posted February 6, 2008 5:16 p.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2008 3:50 p.m. EST

— Removing a cancerous tumor used to mean surgery, but now patients have other options. One is a procedure that can reduce hospital recovery time from days to hours.

Mary Waddell’s kidney cancer is an example. Last year, a bladder problem led to X-rays, and those revealed the cancer.

Waddell’s tumor could have been removed with a scalpel, but that option was unappealing.

“Due to my age, I was not looking forward to having open surgery,” Waddell said.

Then she learned that she was a good candidate for a less-invasive approach – radio-frequency ablation, or RFA, at Durham Regional Hospital.

Dr. Steve Loehr, an interventional radiologist, explained the procedure as he performed it on another patient for whom it was a good option.

With the patient under anesthesia, Loehr used ultra-sound and a CT scan to guide a special needle into a tumor.

On the screen he watches is a bright, white line, which is the needle.

“It's essentially the same risk as doing a biopsy – you place a needle in the tumor – so recovery time is much less than the surgery (option),” Loehr explained.

For about five minutes, heat is applied to the tumor. The cancer is on the surface, so the patient’s kidney can be spared. RFA also was a good option because the tumor was small.

That is why RFA is not always an option.

“Obviously, if it's too large, then the kidney needs to be removed,” Loehr said.

After heating, the CT scan shows the result.

“This is what's left of the tumor now,” Loehr said as he looked at the screen. With RFA, doctors use follow-up imaging to make sure all the cancer is gone.

“Within a month, they did another scan and found that they had not quite got it all,” Waddell said of her case. She had a second RFA procedure.

Even with needing a repeat treatment, she said, RFA is better than surgery, and she's been cancer free for several months.