Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a type of electrical energy. It uses heat made by radio waves to treat cancer. You have RFA using a special needle called a needle electrode. The electrical current from the needle heats up the tumour and kills the cancer cells.

Your doctor might recommend this treatment if you have one or more small lung cancers and you can't have surgery or radiotherapy or you don't want those treatments. Or if your cancer is blocking your airway and making it hard to breathe. 

You have it in the imaging department of the hospital and it takes about 30 minutes. It is not available in every hospital.

You might have RFA alongside other lung cancer treatments.

Before your treatment

Your doctor or nurse will tell you how to prepare for your radiofrequency ablation. They will explain what happens and tell you about how they do the treatment.

You sign a form saying that you agree to have the procedure. You can ask your doctor or nurse any questions that you have. Tell them about any medicines you are taking.

Eating and drinking

You shouldn’t eat or drink anything except water for 4 to 6 hours before the treatment. You can drink water until 2 hours beforehand.

Having radiofrequency ablation

A nurse puts a small tube called a cannula into a vein in the back of your hand. They go with you to the imaging department. They help you to lie down on a treatment couch.

An anaesthetist injects an anaesthetic or a medicine to make you feel sleepy into the cannula.

Then your doctor injects local anaesthetic into the area of your chest so that the area is numb.

Your doctor uses a CT scanner to show the position of the cancer.

Photo of a CT scanner

Your doctor then puts a small needle through the skin of your chest and directly into the tumour. The scanner checks that it is in the right place.

An electrode in the needle creates radiofrequency energy to produce heat and destroy the tumour tissue.

After radiofrequency ablation

You stay in the imaging department until the general anaesthetic or sedation wears off.

You might feel a bit drowsy and confused but you won’t remember any of the treatment.

You might wear an oxygen mask for a short time.

A nurse then takes you back to your ward.

You might be able to go home that evening or you might stay on your ward overnight.

Side effects

Soreness and pain

You might be sore at the radiofrequency ablation site. Taking painkillers for a few days helps. Tell your nurse or doctor if you still have pain.

Feeling tired

You might feel tired and weak for a few days after your treatment. Take it easy and plan to rest in between activities.

Possible risks

Radiofrequency ablation is a safe treatment but all treatments have potential risks and side effects.

Collapsed lung (pneumothorax)

Air or gas can leak into the space around the lung and make it collapse. This makes you feel very breathless. It can get better on its own or your doctor can put in a small tube to expand the lung again.

Let your doctor know straight away if your breathing gets worse after your treatment.

If the cancer grows back

You can have the treatment again if the tumour starts to block your airway. Or your doctor might suggest other treatment.

Related links