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Hyperthermia for treating cancer

Hyperthermia uses heat to damage and kill cancer cells without harming normal cells.

It may be used for:

  • A small area of cells, such as a tumor
  • Parts of the body, such as an organ or limb
  • The whole body

Hyperthermia is almost always used together with radiation or chemotherapy. There are different types of hyperthermia. Some types can destroy tumors without surgery. Other types help radiation or chemotherapy work better.

Only a few cancer centers in the United States offer this treatment. It is being studied in clinical trials.

Types of Cancer

Hyperthermia is being studied to treat many types of cancer:

  • Head and neck
  • Brain
  • Lung
  • Esophagus
  • Endometrial
  • Breast
  • Bladder
  • Rectal
  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Cervical
  • Mesothelioma
  • Sarcomas (soft tissues)
  • Melanoma
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Ovarian
  • Pancreatic
  • Prostate
  • Thyroid

Local Hyperthermia

This type of hyperthermia delivers very high heat to a small area of cells or a tumor. Local hyperthermia can treat cancer without surgery.

Different forms of energy may be used, including:

  • Radio waves
  • Microwaves
  • Ultrasound waves

Heat may be delivered using:

  • An external machine to deliver heat to tumors near the surface of the body.
  • A probe to deliver heat to tumors within a body cavity, such as the throat or rectum.
  • A needle-like probe to sends radio wave energy directly into the tumor to kill cancer cells. This is called radiofrequency ablation (RFA). It is the most common type of local hyperthermia. In most cases, RFA treats liver, kidney, and lung tumors that cannot be taken out with surgery.

Regional Hyperthermia

This type of hyperthermia uses low heat on larger areas, such as an organ, limb, or a hollow space inside the body.

Heat may be delivered using these methods:

  • Applicators on the surface of the body focus energy on a cancer inside the body, such as cervical or bladder cancer.
  • Some of the person's blood is removed, heated, and then returned back to the limb or organ. This is often done with chemotherapy drugs. This method treats melanoma on the arms or legs, as well as lung or liver cancer.
  • Doctors heat chemotherapy drugs and pump them into the area around the organs in a person's belly. This is used to treat cancers in this area.

Whole Body Hyperthermia

This treatment raises a person's body temperature as though they have a fever. This helps chemotherapy work better to treat cancer that has spread (metastasized). Blankets, warm water, or a heated chamber are used to warm the person's body. During this therapy, people sometimes get medicines to make them calm and sleepy.

Side effects

During hyperthermia treatments, some tissues may get very hot. This can cause:

  • Burns
  • Blisters
  • Discomfort or pain

Other possible side effects include:

  • Swelling
  • Blood clots
  • Bleeding

Whole-body hyperthermia can cause:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

In rare cases, it can harm the heart or blood vessels.

References

American Cancer Society website. Hyperthermia to treat cancer. www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/hyperthermia. Updated May 3, 2016. Accessed December 18, 2017.

Dewhirst M, Stauffer PR, Das S, Craciunescu OI, Vajaskovic Z. Hyperthermia. In: Gunderson LL, Tepper JE, eds. Clinical Radiation Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 21.

National Cancer Institute website. Hyperthermia in cancer treatment. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/surgery/hyperthermia-fact-sheet. Updated August 31, 2011. Accessed December 18, 2017.

Review Date 10/21/2017

Updated by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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