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Heat Technique Zaps Cancerous Tumors

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A revolutionary procedure that uses intense heat to destroy tumors directly may change the way many cancer patients are treated.

The experimental procedure, called radiofrequency ablation, or RFA, destroys tumors while preserving the surrounding tissue. Recent studies show this high-tech procedure may become a promising alternative to traditional, more invasive cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

"I knew it was something I just had to do, and it sounded much better than the alternative, going for open surgery and a longer recuperation," said Valerie Irons, a 42-year-old breast and liver cancer patient who was treated with RFA.

Quick and Painless

Another patient who had lung and kidney cancer said the procedure was pain-free and quick.

"There's no pain involved. You're not going to stay for a week," said Henry Ganosel, 82. "It works. They shrink the tumor, it's not there anymore. I'm living proof."

Still in the testing stages, RFA is being eyed as a way to treat breast, kidney, bone, lung, adrenal, and liver cancer. It has mostly been used on liver tumors in the past.

"No one is saying this will be a primary treatment for most tumors," said Dr. Tim Johnson, ABCNEWS' medical editor. "It will be used primarily for patients who cannot tolerate major surgery or who have failed other treatments."

It's currently being tried on many different tumors with some success, but so far there is no long-term data on the procedure, he said.

Heat Targets Tumor

To perform radiofrequency ablation, doctors use ultrasound or another imaging device to direct a thin, needlelike probe to the tumor site. Electrodes deliver high-frequency currents into the site and the vibrations from these currents give off intense heat, which kills the tumor.

Dr. Damian Dupuy, director of ultrasound at Rhode Island Hospital, is one of the pioneers who worked to develop the technique.

"I would say that this is shifting the paradigm in patient care, because most patients are only given the option of chemo, surgery, or radiation," Dupuy said. "If they're an older person or have other medical diseases, often times they're not given an alternative. With this procedure, we're effectively removing the tumors without doing surgery. It's Band-Aid surgery."

Doctors say 85 percent of liver cancer patients have an advanced form of the disease or other complications that make traditional surgical removal of their tumors impossible.

"This will probably replace liver surgery in our lifetime, if not within the next decade," Dupuy said.

At a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago over the weekend, the Cleveland Clinic reported that doctors using RFA on patients with colorectal cancer that had spread to the liver were able to double the patients' survival rates from 12 months to 28 months. In some cases the survival rates stretched to as long as 34 to 38 months.

"So that's more than an extra year of life with a minimally invasive procedure," Johnson said.

For cancer patient Irons, the new procedure meant getting out of the hospital without undergoing surgery.

"I came home with a Band-Aid instead of stitches," she said. "I came home, I didn't have to stay in the hospital. So far things look good."

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