Cancer remains one of the most prevalent diseases in the world, making a lasting impact on people and families every single year. In 2020, there were an estimated 1.8 million new cancer diagnoses just in the United States alone. More than 606,000 U.S. residents are expected to die from the disease. The most common forms of cancer in women are breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, while men are more likely to suffer from prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers.
Cancer is known to be caused by genetic mutations that result in cells rapidly multiplying, eventually forming into tissue masses known as tumors. The actual cause of these genetic mutations is not well known and may come down to an impenetrable combination of heredity, the environment, and some lifestyle factors. This makes treating cancer difficult, more often reactive than proactive.
Current treatments for cancer typically comprise surgery to remove larger masses and chemotherapy and radiation therapy to destroy any lingering cancer cells that may not be visible to the eye. Unfortunately, these treatments leave much to be desired.
What is Cryoablation?
Cryoablation, sometimes referred to as cryosurgery or simply cryotherapy, is a form of treatment that harnesses extremely cold temperatures to excise tissue. Human cells are unable to survive cold temperatures. With cryoablation, doctors can target specific areas using a freezing agent while minimizing harm to surrounding tissues.
Cryoablation is already commonly used for certain skin conditions, like warts and skin tags, but the same idea can be applied to certain cancers. Once the cancerous tissues are removed, the body’s immune system removes the dead cells and heals the area with fresh, healthy cells.
Cryoablation therapy is reserved for only certain types of cancer and some precancerous conditions, including:
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) in its early stages
- Some precancerous skin growths, like actinic keratosis
- Cervical cancer
- A type of precancerous condition in the cervix called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia
Your doctor may also recommend cryotherapy treatment for precancerous tumors and noncancerous growths in the bones. Cryotherapy may also help with a condition called Kaposi sarcoma, a type of soft tissue cancer that usually occurs in people with AIDS or people who use drugs that suppress the immune system.
How Does Cryoablation Work?
Cryoablation can be applied externally to tumors that form on the skin and internally for tumors that are within the body. To reach that extremely cold temperature, sometimes going as low as -70° Celsius, doctors will use argon gas, liquid nitrogen, or liquid nitrous oxide.
For external applications, the doctor will apply the freezing agent using a cotton swab or a spray device. This usually involves liquid nitrogen. Once the frozen tissue thaws out, it dissolves and eventually forms into a scab.
Internal tumors require a tool called a cryoprobe. This tool is a thin, needle-like instrument that is inserted into the patient’s body via a small incision or during surgery. Due to the thin design, the cryoprobe can be easily guided directly to the tumor with some help from ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI imaging techniques. Once the cryoprobe makes direct contact with the cancerous tissue, the surgeon can pump the freezing agent through the cryoprobe. This forms balls of ice crystals around the probe which freeze neighboring tissue. Depending on where the tumor is and its size, your doctor may use multiple cryoprobes that can deliver the freezing agent to different parts of the tumor.
The tissue is allowed to thaw before it is once again frozen. This cycle of freezing and thawing is repeated during the same session of cryogenic treatment. Your specialist may also recommend multiple sessions to thoroughly eliminate the cancerous tissue. As the cells die, they are absorbed into the body and removed by the immune system.
The Advantages of Cryoablation Therapy
Cryoablation therapy offers some unique advantages that make it more feasible than other forms of treatment.
Reduced Risks for Certain Cancer
Surgical treatments for bone cancers can be tricky. They often come with a high risk of joint damage. In some cases, surgery may lead to a full amputation. Cryoablation therapy for bone cancer may reduce the risk of joint damage and the need for amputation.
Cryotherapy is minimally invasive. At most, it requires a small incision, and the entire procedure can often be performed with only local anesthesia. This prevents the complications usually associated with surgery, like pain, blood loss, and any side effects from general anesthetic. Surgical procedures are just physically taxing in general and usually require some amount of preparation. Cryotherapy requires little preparation (though your doctor will tell you if you need to do anything before your cryotherapy session).
As cryotherapy is so minimally invasive, the recovery period is significantly shorter than traditional surgery. Some people may return to their normal lives on the same day, while most can return to everyday activities within just a few days.
Fewer Side Effects
Traditional surgery to remove tumors also usually involves cutting away nearby tissue or even removing whole organs, which naturally has a huge effect on your ongoing health. Cryoablation is much more precise and localized, leaving surrounding tissue relatively intact.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy also often result in harsh side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and gastrointestinal problems. Some forms of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can damage the immune system or even cause infertility.
Cryoablation typically carries few side effects. You may experience minor pain or muscle soreness following the procedure, but this will go away within a few days. Cryoablation performed in the cervix may result in some pain, cramping, bleeding, or a watery discharge, but it has not been shown to affect fertility. Cryoablation may cause some minor nerve damage, resulting in a loss of sensation in the area. In rare cases, cryotherapy can cause a loss of pigmentation or hair in the affected area.
Thanks to the minimally invasive nature and simple process, cryoablation can generally be safely repeated. This can help to more thoroughly reduce tumors or eliminate cancerous tissue.
Possible Disadvantage with Cryoablation
So, you may be asking yourself, “Does cryotherapy work?” The main disadvantage to cryoablation is that experts still are not sure of the long-term effectiveness of the procedure. While cryoablation can be used for visible tumors, it cannot target microscopic cancer cells, meaning the tumor may eventually grow back or the cells may travel to a different part of the body.
Research on how well cryoablation works in conjunction with other treatments, including radiation therapy and chemotherapy, is still ongoing, but studies are promising. This may allow for more comprehensive treatment options. If you’re looking for more information, we cover cryotherapy for cancer.
Cryoablation is an increasingly viable and accessible treatment for cancer, particularly smaller tumors and cancers in their early stages. Cryogenic treatment involves using extreme cold therapy to freeze cancer cells off of the skin surface. Further research will determine how cryoablation can be used for long-term effectiveness to reduce cancer symptoms and prevent the potential of relapse. Cryoablation therapy may not be appropriate for your specific case of cancer, so consult your doctor to determine if cryotherapy is an effective treatment option for you.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.