For more than 100 years, doctors have used extreme cold to destroy and prevent the spread of abnormal tissue growth, a method known as cryotherapy, to treat everything from unwanted freckles to stomach ulcers. Though early researchers suggested cryotherapy might be effective in treating cancer, it was originally determined to be too complicated. In recent years, however, cryotherapy research has once more come to the forefront as a legitimate alternative to cancer surgery. With new technologies that prevent damage to healthy tissue and nearby organs, doctors have started using it to treat prostate and liver cancers, and new studies have shown its effectiveness in patients suffering from inoperable and metastasized tumors. “We have treated [about] 600 patients with liver, lung, kidney, breast and general soft-tissue tumor sites, spanning curative to palliative care,”
Dr. Peter Littrup, a professor of Radiology, Urology and Radiation Oncology Clinical Operations at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, wrote in an email to the Cancer Beat. In treating cancer with cryotherapy (also known as cryosurgery), doctors will use one of several imaging techniques, most often ultrasound or CT scans, to direct a frosty flow of liquid nitrogen or argon gas at the tumor. Dr. Littrup describes it as “an image-guided local treatment that destroys the cancer in place by 'sculpting' lethal cold (temperatures more than thirty degrees below zero) to cover the whole tumor.” Compared to traditional surgery, Littrup says, cryotherapy is minimally invasive and has a faster recovery time.
In March, at the Society for Interventional Radiology’s annual meeting, Littrup discussed the results of a study on cryotherapy’s efficacy in breast cancer patients with multiple tumors. Along with noting a marked improvement in patient comfort levels and recovery time, the five-year study recorded no local recurrences of the cancer and only one instance of regional recurrence. On the strength of such findings, the Society for Interventional Radiology says cryotherapy has “opened the door to an encouraging potential future treatment for the nearly 200,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States each year.”
While cryotherapy has shown promise as a curative treatment, another benefit, according to Littrup, is its ability to “preserve quality of life by providing good local treatment with minimal side effects, especially with advanced stages of cancer where any additional treatment is unlikely to provide a systemic cure.” No matter the stage of cancer, researchers say cryotherapy offers a number of benefits over traditional surgery. It is an outpatient procedure, so patients can expect to be back to normal activity within two or three days. It is performed under a local anesthetic, which significantly reduces the risks associated with surgery under general anesthesia. And, since doctors deliver the treatment using needles, making only small incisions in the skin, patients experience less discomfort and scarring. For breast cancer patients, cryotherapy offers another benefit: a higher chance that doctors will be able to preserve the breast. Though new research is positive, not all doctors are recommending cryosurgery as an alternative treatment yet.
Dr. Brian Stainken, a radiology specialist, is hopeful that further research may improve cancer treatment, but he emphasizes the need to “keep a close watch on it for the next two years.” Indeed, “caution” seems to be cryosurgery’s byword in medical circles. The National Cancer Institute says the side effects are less severe than those associated with traditional surgery and that recovery time is minimal, but it says “additional studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of cryosurgery in controlling cancer and improving survival.” In addition to concerns about long-term efficacy, patients seeking cryotherapy may run into other roadblocks.
Because the treatment is still considered experimental by many insurance companies, it may not be covered. However, if research continues to show positive results, insurance companies may change their tune. Still, Dr. Littrup’s study has physicians and researchers excited about the potential of cryosurgery, which the Society of Interventional Radiology says “may be the future treatment of choice for patients with cancer.”