Understanding Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) of Liver Tumors

Outline of man showing digestive tract and liver.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a way to treat cancer that is growing in the liver. The treatment uses heat to kill cancer cells. A type of radio wave is sent into a liver tumor through wires (electrodes). This creates heat that kills the cells of the tumor without harming too many nearby healthy cells.

How to say it

RAY-dee-oh-FREE-kwen-see uh-BLAY-shun

Why RFA of liver tumors is done

Radiofrequency ablation may be done if you cannot have liver surgery. Or it may be done in addition to surgery. It’s most often done if you have a small number of tumors in your liver that are not over a certain size.

How RFA of liver tumors is done

The treatment is done in a hospital, and takes 1 to 3 hours. During the procedure:

  • You are given medicine to make you relax or sleep through the treatment. The area to be treated may be numbed with medicine.

  • The healthcare provider makes a small cut (incision) in your skin. In some cases, the provider makes several cuts and a long, thin tube with a tiny light and camera on the end (laparoscope) is put through one of the cuts. This is to help the provider see the procedure. In other cases, the provider may make one large cut instead.

  • The provider puts a metal probe through the cut and into your liver. The probe may have several wires called electrodes. Or the probe may be a single electrode the size of a needle. The provider then uses imaging such as ultrasound or CT to help guide the probe into the tumor.

  • The provider connects the probe to a machine that sends radio waves through the electrodes. This creates heat that kills the cells in the tumor. This is done for each tumor that needs to be treated. The tools are then removed, and the cuts in the skin are closed with stitches (sutures).

  • After the treatment, you will stay in the hospital for 1 or more nights. Or you may be able to go home the same day.

Risks of RFA of liver tumors

  • Bleeding from the liver

  • Leaking of bile from the liver

  • Infection

  • Damage to nearby organs, such as the gallbladder, intestines, or lungs

  • Aches, fever, and upset stomach (nausea) for several days to several weeks (postablation syndrome)

  • Need to repeat the procedure