Can Cryotherapy Be Alternative to Surgery?

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Cryotherapy is an experimental treatment for breast cancer. Cryotherapy freezes and kills the cancer cells that make up the tumor. A very small study suggests that cryotherapy may be a safe and effective alternative to surgery to remove breast cancer.

All cells, including cancer cells, contain water. When cryotherapy freezes the cells, the water turns to ice crystals. These ice crystals, along with the cold itself, destroy the cancer cells.

Right now, cryotherapy is used regularly to treat certain cancers and other lesions. For example, dermatologists apply liquid nitrogen directly to the skin to kill certain early-stage skin cancers and other skin lesions that could potentially turn into cancer (called pre-cancerous lesions). Cryotherapy also is used to treat some forms of cervical, prostate, and bone cancer. Still, using cryosurgery to treat other types of cancer, including breast cancer, is experimental.

When cryotherapy is used to treat breast cancer, one or more small tubes -- called cryoprobes -- deliver either liquid nitrogen or argon gas directly to the cancer tissue. Ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to put the cryoprobes in exactly the right place. Cryotherapy is less invasive than lumpectomy or mastectomy and preserves more of the breast than lumpectomy.

In this small study, 27 breast cancer tumors in 14 women were treated with cryotherapy that used several cryoprobes to deliver the liquid nitrogen or argon gas and freeze the tumors. The women got local anesthesia and a mild sedative before the cryotherapy. After treatment, the researchers biopsied the tissue around the frozen tumor (this tissue is called "the margins") to be sure there were no cancer cells in the margins. Most of the women have been followed for about 18 months after the cryotherapy and one woman has been followed for 6 years.

  • None of the women had the cancer come back (recurrence) in the area treated with cryotherapy.
  • One woman developed cancer in a different part of the breast that hadn't been treated with cryotherapy, which means it's likely that it was a new cancer and not incomplete cryotherapy treatment.
  • The women said they had little discomfort during and after treatment and there were no complications.

Much more research is needed before doctors know if cryotherapy is a good alternative to breast cancer surgery and when it's best used.

Stay tuned to Breastcancer.org for the latest news on better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat breast cancer.

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