When cancer is at an early stage or if surgery isn't possible, a urologist might suggest cryoablation as a treatment option.

Performed with a thin needle called a cryoprobe that's placed through the skin into the affected area, what's also referred to as cryotherapy or cryosurgery involves the use a gas that freezes cancerous tissues.

The procedure may also be recommended if radiation therapy or chemotherapy treatments aren't effective, or in some situations where cancer has spread to other tissues.

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Cancers Treated with Cryoablation

It's usually prostate cancer that's treated with cryoablation when the urinary system is affected. Patients with cervical or kidney cancer that hasn't spread to other tissues may also benefit from this treatment. While normally not used on patients with colon cancer, there's research going on to see if cryoablation may be effective on this type of cancer.

How Cryotherapy Is Done

During the procedure, a thin, metal probe or needle is inserted into the affected tissue or gland. Small incisions are made by the area being treated. The urethra is protected from cold temperatures with a warm saline solution delivered through a catheter.

A frozen liquid, usually argon gas or liquid nitrogen, is applied to the cancerous tissues through the probe. An ultrasound that's done during the procedure guides the doctor to the correct tissues in order to protect healthy tissues as much as possible.


What Freezing Does to Cancer Cells

Any living tissues in the body, whether cancerous or not, are not able to survive in extremely cold conditions. The rapid delivery of cold gas to abnormal tissues causes ice balls to form in cells. These crystal balls cause the cell membrane to rupture, which ultimately kills the cell.

The body then sends white blood cells to the treated area to "clean up" the dead cells. There's research suggesting that this increase in activity causes the immune system to proactively attack any remaining cancerous cells in the affected area.

How Patients May Benefit from Cryoablation

Since applications of frozen gas are localized, there are fewer risks associated with cryotherapy than other treatments. It can also be safely repeated if multiple applications are needed to fully treat all cancerous structures and tissues. With some early stage cancers, it may be an acceptable and effective alternative to surgery. Patients may also benefit from:

  • Possible use of an epidural as an alternative to anesthesia
  • Reduced risk of infection
  • Less blood loss since incisions are smaller
  • Faster recovery times post-procedure
  • Not as much tissue irritation or swelling in the treated area
  • Possibly avoiding the need for complete removal of the prostate if the treatment is being done for prostate cancer

Cryoablation is sometimes preferred over chemotherapy or radiation therapy since potential side effects are generally milder. Patients sometimes have follow-up visits with a urologist to confirm that the treated area is free of cancerous tissues. Patients at risk of developing certain urinary cancers may have periodic screenings following treatment to look for signs of recurrence or cancer in other areas.

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Thomas E. Ahlering, M.D.
Urological Cancers
Professor and Vice Chairman
Greg E. Gin, M.D.
Urologic Oncology, Minimally Invasive Surgery
HS Assistant Clinical Professor
Cory M. Hugen, M.D.
Urological Cancers
HS Assistant Clinical Professor
Edward Uchio, M.D., F.A.C.S., C.P.I.
Urological Cancers
Mark Jordan, M.D., F.A.C.S., F.R.C.S. (C)
Urological Cancers
Residency Program Director, HS Clinical Professor

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