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
- Sarcomas (soft tissues)
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
- 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.
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.
During hyperthermia treatments, some tissues may get very hot. This can cause:
- Discomfort or pain
Other possible side effects include:
- Blood clots
Whole-body hyperthermia can cause:
- Nausea and vomiting
In rare cases, it can harm the heart or blood vessels.
American Cancer Society website. Hyperthermia to treat cancer.
Feng M, Matuszak MM, Ramirez E, Fraass BA. Hyperthermia. In: Tepper JE, Foote RL, Michalski JM, eds. Gunderson & Tepper's Clinical Radiation Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 21.
Vane M, Giuliano AE. Ablative techniques in the treatment of benign and malignant breast disease. In: Cameron JL, Cameron AM, eds. Current Surgical Therapy. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:682-685.
Last reviewed on: 9/24/2019
Reviewed 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.