Cryoablation is a form of treatment that uses a device to apply extremely cold temperatures to cancer cells. The device can precisely target the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact with no damage. In some cases, a doctor may recommend it to treat kidney cancer.

The National Cancer Institute states that cryoablation uses extreme cold to cut away abnormal tissue. People may also refer to it as cryosurgery or cryotherapy.

The procedure involves inserting one or more needle-like probes, called cryoprobes, into or near the tumor. Extremely cold liquids or gases, such as liquid nitrogen or compressed argon gas, cool the cryoprobes. These freeze the cells in the targeted area, warm them, and then freeze them again.

This approach allows surgeons to target the cancer cells effectively while leaving the remaining, healthy cells intact. However, it can be painful and has some associated risks.

This article reviews how cryoablation works against kidney cancer. It also discusses who can get the treatment, what the procedure entails, and more.

Surgical lights during cryoablation for treating kidney cancer.Share on Pinterest
pengyou91/Getty Images

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is the most common type of kidney cancer affecting adults. Typically, the gold standard for treating RCC has been nephron sparing resection, or partial nephrectomy. This is a procedure to remove a part of the affected kidney.

However, with the increased use of imaging techniques, healthcare professionals are detecting RCC while it is in its early stages.

This has meant that medical professionals have now begun to use cryoablation to treat RCC when a person is not an ideal candidate for partial nephrectomy or when they need to preserve their kidney due to other medical conditions.

Cryoablation is a safe and effective treatment option for small kidney cancers. It is also less invasive than other surgical options.

Before undergoing the procedure, a healthcare professional will order an MRI or CT scan to ensure that a person is a suitable candidate for the procedure.

Typically, those who have stage 1A or 1B kidney cancer are suitable candidates for cryoablation.

Some factors that a doctor may consider before suggesting cryoablation for kidney cancer include:

  • Age and other medical conditions: A healthcare professional may perform cryoablation on older adults or those with other medical conditions.
  • Kidney function: Cryoablation may be an option for those who have poor kidney function or only one kidney.
  • Size of the tumor: A healthcare professional may recommend the procedure for cancers that measure 3 centimeters or less. It may be possible to treat larger tumors in some individuals, but there may be a higher chance of recurrence.
  • Location of the tumor: Tumors nearer the back of the kidney are easier to treat than those nearer the front of the kidney, but cryoablation may still be a viable treatment option.

A healthcare professional may order cross-sectional imaging to help plan for the procedure.

They should also provide detailed instructions on what a person needs to do to prepare. They will need to know about any medications, vitamins, or supplements that the person is taking.

A 2020 article notes that a doctor will likely advise a person to stop taking blood thinners prior to the procedure. However, a person may be able to continue taking low dose aspirin.

In most cases, a person should plan to spend 1 night in the hospital. This can mean packing an overnight bag and arranging transportation to and from the hospital.

The procedure itself is relatively short and minimally invasive.

A nurse or technician will provide a sedative to the person to help relax them during the procedure. They will then administer a local anesthetic to the area where they will make an incision. A general anesthetic may also be an option.

The doctor will use imaging technology, such as a CT or MRI scan, to locate the exact location and precisely target the tumor. They will then make an incision in the skin or use keyhole surgery.

If a surgeon performs keyhole surgery, they will make a small cut and insert a camera called a laparoscope to ensure good visibility.

The doctor will likely take a biopsy of the tumor and then proceed with the cryoablation.

During the procedure, they will insert one or more of the cryotherapy needles and freeze the cancer cells.

After they have removed the cryoprobes, they will perform a CT scan.

The authors of the 2021 article state that after waking up, a person needs to rest in bed for 4 hours. They will be able to eat or drink after 1 hour, providing there are no immediate complications.

People can typically go home the next day. If there is pain in the treatment area, they may need to take pain relievers for a few days.

A healthcare professional may request a follow-up appointment after 1 month.

How long does it take to work?

Cryoablation typically removes the tumor in one to two sessions.

It is generally safe and effective in destroying cancer cells. However, as the surgeon does not remove the tissue from the body, a person will need monitoring to check for a recurrence of the tumor. If it does return, a doctor can repeat the procedure.

Cryoablation has several potential advantages, including:

  • a shorter recovery time compared with open surgery
  • minimal bleeding and pain
  • being effective in killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact

A 2015 review notes that several clinical studies have shown cryoablation for kidney cancer to be a safe and effective treatment.

However, there are some potential side effects. These include:

  • bleeding around the kidney
  • temporary weakness that can occur due to a nerve sustaining damage
  • injury to the ureter, which is the tube that carries the urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • urine leakage

Cancer Research UK states that major complications are rare if a person undergoes cryoablation via an incision in the skin. Complications are very rare when surgeons perform keyhole surgery.

Over the years, studies have shown similar results for cryoablation for kidney cancer.

A 2018 study involving more than 400 people showed that the procedure was 96% effective after the first procedure and 98% effective following a second. The authors note that complications occurred in less than 5% of people who underwent the procedure.

The answers may help clarify some FAQs about cryoablation for kidney cancer.

How does cryoablation compare with surgical methods?

Cryoablation offers an alternative to open surgery. It is an effective treatment option that has a low chance of complications.

According to a 2014 study, cryoablation has a more favorable safety profile than the typical gold standard treatment.

It also results in a shorter hospital stay. Whereas surgical options can result in hospital stays of 2.5–4.5 days, people who undergo cryoablation can go home the next day.

How does it differ from radiofrequency ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation is another type of minimally invasive procedure that a doctor can use to treat kidney cancer.

While cryoablation uses cold to destroy cancer cells, radiofrequency ablation uses heat.

What happens to the tumor after cryoablation?

The tumor remains in the body, where it will break apart and shrink over time. Scar tissue eventually replaces the abnormal tissue.

A doctor will typically monitor the person following the procedure to make sure that the tumor does not grow back. In some cases, a person may require a second procedure.

Cryoablation is a minimally invasive procedure that a doctor may use to destroy cancer cells and abnormal tissue.

A healthcare professional will make an incision or perform keyhole surgery. They will then insert a cryoprobe and use extremely cold temperatures to destroy the cancer cells.

Cryoablation can provide a safe and effective treatment option for kidney cancer, providing the cancer is in its early stages and a person is a suitable candidate.