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Hyperthermia for Cancer Treatment

What is hyperthermia in cancer treatment?

Hyperthermia is heat therapy. Heat has been used for hundreds of years as cancer therapy. Scientists believe that heat may help shrink tumors by damaging cells or depriving them of what they need to live. It may also make the cancer cells more sensitive to other cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Research studies are underway to determine the use and effectiveness of hyperthermia in cancer treatment. Because this treatment is not yet considered standard care, its use outside the setting of a research trial is uncommon.

How is it used?

Heat can be applied to a very small area, to an organ or limb, or to the whole body. Hyperthermia is often used with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other cancer treatments. These are the types of hyperthermia:

Type of hyperthermia

Treatment area

Method of application

Local hyperthermia

Treatment area includes a tumor or other small area.

  • Heat is applied from the outside with high-frequency waves aimed at the tumor.

  • Inside the body, a small area may be heated with thin, heated wire probes or an implanted microwave antennae and radiofrequency electrodes.

Regional hyperthermia

An organ or a limb is treated.

  • Devices that produce high energy are placed over the region to be heated.

  • Some of the blood is removed, heated, and then pumped into the region to be heated. The process is called perfusion.

Whole-body hyperthermia

The whole body is treated.

  • Warm water blankets

  • Inductive coils (like the coils in an electric blanket)

  • Thermal room or chambers

Are there any side effects?

Side effects may include skin discomfort or local pain. Hyperthermia can also cause blisters and sometimes burns. But these generally heal quickly. Local hyperthermia can cause pain at the site, infection, blood clots, burns, and damage to the muscles, skin, and nerves in the treated area. Whole-body hyperthermia can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Improved technology, research, and treatment experience have resulted in fewer side effects. Most side effects people have are short-term and not serious. 

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