Cryosurgery for Lung Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 27, 2022
3 min read

If you or a loved one has non-small-cell lung cancer, you may want to know more about a procedure called cryosurgery.

Cryosurgery, also called cryotherapy or cryoablation, is a procedure that kills cancer cells using extreme cold.

During the surgery, a thin needle called a cryoprobe is inserted through your skin and directly into your tumor. This is done either with local anesthesia or you’ll be “put under” with general anesthesia, so you won’t feel anything.

Or your doctor may insert a long, flexible tube through your throat and down your windpipe, and pass the probe through the tube to access your lungs. This is done under general anesthesia, so you’ll be asleep. The way this surgery is done depends on the size and location of your tumor.

The doctor uses an ultrasound or MRI to guide the probe to the right spot. Sometimes more than one probe can be used. The surgeon will then pump liquid nitrogen or argon gas through the probe. This freezes the tumor tissue. The tissue is then allowed to thaw, and the freezing step is repeated again. This repeated freeze-thaw cycle kills the cancer cells, and they are absorbed back into the body.

You might have cryosurgery in combination with other cancer treatments including:

  • Hormone therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Immunotherapy
  • Other surgeries

After your surgery, you’ll likely take antibiotics to prevent infection. Sometimes your doctor will give you medicines or materials to keep you from bleeding while you heal.

Cryosurgery can be used for several types of cancer, including non-small-cell lung cancer.

It might be a good option for you if you can’t have other kinds of surgery, such as a lung resection, because:

  • Your cancer is at an advanced stage.
  • Your health is poor in general.
  • Other types of treatments haven't worked well for you.
  • Your tumors have come back after other treatments.

Cryosurgery has several benefits:

  • It’s less invasive, and less painful, than other types of surgery because the doctor only has to make a small hole in the skin or go in through your throat.
  • The surgery is short and takes only about 30 minutes.
  • It’s a local procedure, meaning it’s focused on a specific area and won’t harm other parts of your body.
  • It can be repeated and used along with many other procedures safely.
  • It may be an option for people who aren’t responding to standard treatments, or who can’t get more invasive surgery.
  • Studies show cryosurgery may help trigger your immune system to learn to fight your tumor.

There are also some drawbacks to cryosurgery.

  • It’s not known exactly how well cryosurgery will control your cancer in the long term.
  • It’s not a cure for your cancer. This means your tumors can come back in time, and you’ll have to repeat your treatment.
  • Cryosurgery can only be used on tumors that are visible on imaging tests like ultrasounds or MRI.
  • It may not be covered by insurance since its use is still being studied.

Cryosurgery can also cause some side effects. Those include:

  • A sore throat for a few days from the tube
  • Pain in the treatment area
  • Coughing up blood or tumor tissue for a few days after your surgery

Like any procedure, there are some potential risks with cryosurgery, including:

  • A hard time breathing. Cryosurgery should make it easier to breathe. Call your doctor if the opposite happens and you’re finding it harder to breathe.
  • Chest infection. Let your doctor know if you have symptoms of an infection, including a high temperature or a cough with discolored mucus.
  • Fistula. Very rarely, a hole called a fistula can form between your windpipe and your esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth and stomach). Call your doctor if you have pain in your throat or chest that doesn’t go away within a few days of your surgery.
  • Air, fluid, or blood leaking into the space between your lungs and your chest wall.