Cryoablation May Make Sense for Small, Isolated Metastatic Breast Cancer Tumors

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Cryoablation attempts to weaken or destroy cancer cells by freezing cancerous tissue. A very small study (eight women participated) suggests that cryoablation to treat metastatic breast cancer in the liver, kidneys, lungs, and other soft tissues is safe and may be a cost-effective means of managing the disease.

The results were presented at the March 2012 Society of Interventional Radiology meeting.

When metastatic breast cancer is diagnosed, one important step in managing the disease is locating all the places the cancer has spread. The bones, lungs, liver, brain, and kidneys are spots where breast cancer is likely to spread. And no matter where the disease has spread, systemic (whole-body) treatments are typically used to weaken metastatic breast cancer. Systemic treatments include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and targeted therapies.

Still, if there is only one spot of metastatic spread or a couple of small spots in just one organ, local treatments may be an additional option. Surgery to remove the metastatic cancer or radiation therapy to weaken or shrink metastatic cancer are examples of local treatments.

Cryoablation is another local treatment for single, small metastatic breast cancer tumors, especially in women who aren't good surgery candidates. Guided by imaging (ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI), cryoablation inserts a special freezing probe (a type of catheter) through the skin and to the tumor to be treated. Once the tip of the probe is in the right spot inside the tumor core, pressurized argon gas is injected through the probe into the tumor, freezing and destroying the cancerous tissue. Cryoablation techniques may vary from one cancer treatment facility to another. Cryoablation is more common in cases where the breast cancer is being well controlled by systemic treatments.

The eight women in this study were either not good candidates for surgery or had stopped responding to chemotherapy. One woman had two metastatic tumors treated; the other women had one tumor treated. The metastatic tumors were in the women's livers, lungs, or kidneys and were an average size of 3 cm (a little bigger than 1 inch). Cryoablation was done about 1.5 years after the metastatic breast cancer was first diagnosed.

Cryoablation was successful in all the women:

  • cryoablation was well tolerated
  • all the treated tumors were successfully destroyed
  • no tumors came back at the cryoablation sites

The eight women survived for an average of about 4 years from the time metastatic breast cancer was diagnosed and an average of 2.5 years after cryoablation. Four of the women lived for more than 5 years after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

It's important to know that while cryoablation can destroy a small, isolated metastatic breast cancer tumor, it doesn't treat cancer that may be growing in other places in the body and doesn't cure metastatic breast cancer. Still, for some women, cryoablation of isolated metastatic breast cancer spots could lengthen survival and allow the women to avoid surgery.

If you've been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, your doctor will likely recommend systemic treatments -- chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, or targeted therapy -- to treat the cancer. Surgery to remove isolated metastatic tumors might also be an option for you. If you're not a good candidate for surgery, you may want to ask your doctor if using cryoablation to destroy isolated metastatic tumors might make sense for you.

You can learn more about treatments for advanced-stage breast cancer in the Recurrent and Metastatic Breast Cancer pages.

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