Cancer continues to have a major impact on the world. In 2020, there were nearly 2 million estimated cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States alone. While cancer research and treatments are more advanced than they ever have been, there is still no known cure for cancer, and the exact cause of cancer is still not fully understood.
Currently, most cancer treatments revolve around a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. While these treatments are generally effective (depending on a patient’s health and the severity of the cancer), they can weaken the immune system and often require long recovery periods. Most surgical procedures also require the removal of surrounding healthy tissue. Studies and clinical trials continue to discover new modes of treatment that may be more effective while doing away with negative side effects. A growing body of research shows that cryoablation therapy may be an effective form of treatment for certain types of cancer. Learn more about cryotherapy for cancer and whether it is the right treatment for you.
What is Cryoablation Therapy?
So, what is cryotherapy and how does cryotherapy work? Cryoablation therapy involves the application of extremely cold temperatures to tissue as a means of removal. This is already a common procedure for removing certain skin growths, including skin tags and warts.
The same idea can apply to cancerous cells and small tumors. Essentially, human cells are unable to survive low temperatures. By concentrating those cold temperatures on a localized area, doctors can carefully destroy abnormal tissue while minimizing any potential damage to surrounding tissue and organs. The destroyed cells are removed from the body by the immune system, allowing healthy tissue to grow and heal the area.
Currently, cryoablation, which is also referred to as cryosurgery or simply cryotherapy, is only recommended for certain types of cancer, as well as certain precancerous conditions. This includes:
- Prostate cancer
- Liver cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Actinic keratosis, a type of precancerous skin growth
- Skin cancers in their early stages, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma
- Cervical cancer
- Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, a type of precancerous condition causing abnormal cell changes in the cervix
Cryoablation therapy may also be recommended for certain types of precancerous or noncancerous tumors affecting the bone. More extensive surgeries can cause damage to the bone and joints, potentially even resulting in amputation. Cryoablation can reduce the risk of joint damage as well as the need for amputation. Cryotherapy may also be used as a treatment for Kaposi sarcoma, a type of cancer affecting soft tissues that is most often associated with AIDS and certain drugs that weaken the immune system. Cryoablation is not recommended for the treatment of lung cancer or breast cancer.
How is Cryoablation Therapy Administered?
Cryoablation requires careful administration to kill abnormal cells without harming healthy tissue. To reach the low temperatures, doctors can use a few different substances, usually argon gas or liquid nitrogen.
For external tumors located on the surface of the skin, your doctor will apply the freezing agent to the tumor using a cotton swab or spray device. The freezing agent for external use is usually liquid nitrogen.
Cryoablation can also be used for some tumors found inside the body. For internal tumors, a doctor will use a tool known as a cryoprobe. This is a thin, wand-like instrument that can be inserted into the body via a small incision or during a surgical procedure. The cryoprobe is guided to the tumor using CT scans, ultrasound, or MRI imaging techniques. Once the probe makes direct contact with the cancerous tissue, the doctor pumps liquid nitrogen or argon gas through the instrument, creating a ball of ice crystals to form around the probe to freeze nearby cells. This allows for extremely accurate application of the freezing agent without harming healthy tissue. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, the doctor may use multiple cryoprobes to deliver the freezing agent to various parts of the cancerous tissue.
The frozen tissue is allowed to thaw, after which the doctor freezes the tumor again. This cycle may be repeated several times during a single session to thoroughly eliminate the cancerous cells. Your specialist may also recommend multiple cryoablation sessions and follow-up visits to determine the effectiveness of the treatment.
With external tumors, the tissue dissolves and forms a scab. For internal tumors, the dead cells get absorbed into the body and flushed away naturally.
Potential Side Effects of Cryoablation Therapy
Cryoablation therapy is largely considered quite safe. For external applications, cryotherapy will result in red, possibly blistered skin after a treatment. Pain should be mild and dissipate after a few days, leading to a scab that should heal over within a few weeks. Internal cryotherapy can result in some mild soreness and pain in the affected area for a few days.
Other side effects depend on the location and size of the tumor. Cryotherapy applied to the cervix has not shown any effect on fertility, but it may result in cramping, bleeding, or a watery discharge.
When used on skin cancer, cryotherapy may cause slight scarring or swelling. The procedure may also cause minor nerve damage, which can cause some numbness in the affected area. In rare instances, cryosurgery can cause a loss of hair or pigmentation in the treated area. However, many consider these side effects to be more favorable than the conventional surgery for skin cancer.
Cryoablation can be used for certain bone cancers. When applied, it can potentially damage nearby bone tissue, resulting in fractures. However, this may not be apparent until later or after the administration of other treatments.
The Advantages of Cryoablation Therapy
The biggest advantage of cryoablation therapy is its minimally invasive nature. It generally does not require surgery. At most, it typically requires a small incision through which the cryoprobe is inserted. This minimizes complications associated with more significant surgical procedures, like pain, bleeding, or the use of a general anesthetic. A localized anesthetic is often used for the small incision. This also means that the recovery period for cryoablation is much shorter, and it may not require a hospital stay.
Another one of the cryo benefits is that it is also much easier to control, allowing the physician to focus the treatment on the diseased tissue without damaging any nearby healthy tissue. This allows the physician to repeat the procedure safely as necessary.
Cryoablation therapy may also offer a unique and effective treatment for cancers that are inoperable or unresponsive to standard treatment options. It also makes a good option for those who may be unable to undergo standard treatments due to age, accessibility, or the presence of other medical conditions.
So, does cryotherapy work? The main unknown with cryotherapy for cancer is its long-term effectiveness. While it has shown success when treating tumors that are visible via imaging tests, it may miss microscopic cancer metastasis. This means that a tumor that is removed may grow back or cancer may return in a different location.
Cryoablation therapy for cancer still remains a viable and largely successful form of cancer treatment, particularly for smaller visible tumors and cancer that is in its early stages. Cryotherapy for cancer involves using extreme cold to destroy the cancer cell, unlike conventional surgery which uses a scalpel to remove the diseased tissue. Research is ongoing on how cryoablation therapy can be combined with other forms of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, as a means of eliminating cancer completely from the body to prevent a potential relapse. If you are not sure if cryoablation therapy is right for you, consult with your doctor to determine the best treatment plan.
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.