Hyperthermia Cancer Treatment: Science and Side Effects Explained

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Updated on May 7, 2020

Hyperthermia is an experimental cancer treatment that requires special equipment and skilled physicians. For this reason, hyperthermia is not available in all cancer treatment centers. In this article, we will learn more about hyperthermia, how it works, and what are the possible side effects of this cancer treatment.

What is hyperthermia?

Hyperthermia is a type of cancer treatment that uses carefully controlled heat to treat tumors. The normal temperature of body tissues is 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. During hyperthermia treatment, the body is exposed to temperatures that are higher than normal. The tissues are heated to temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The treatment is also called thermotherapy or thermal therapy.

How is hyperthermia used to treat cancer?

Research has shown that heat can kill cancer cells while causing minimal injury to healthy cells. Hyperthermia treats cancer by damaging proteins and other structures in cancer cells. It can shrink tumors.

In the majority of patients, hyperthermia is used along with conventional cancer treatments. The heat treatment makes cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy and certain chemotherapy drugs.1 Hyperthermia has shown benefit in many types of cancers, including melanoma, sarcoma, head and neck cancers, brain tumors, esophagus, lung, breast, liver, appendix, peritoneal, bladder, and rectal cancers.1,2

Scientists are still studying the safety and effectiveness of hyperthermia for cancer treatment. This therapy is considered experimental and is not widely available in all cancer treatment centers.

What are the different methods of hyperthermia?

There are three methods of hyperthermia – local, regional, and whole-body.

Local hyperthermia involves the application of heat to a small area of cancer. The heat is delivered through various techniques such as ultrasound, radiofrequency, and microwave. The approach depends on the location of the tumor. External applicators are used for tumors located just under the skin. Endocavitary methods are used for tumors located near a cavity, such as the rectum or esophagus. Probes or needles are used to apply heat to tumors deep inside the body, such as brain tumors.1

Regional hyperthermia is the application of heat to a larger area of the body, such as an organ or limb. External applicators are used to treat cancers located in certain organs or cavities, for example, bladder cancers and cervical cancers. Perfusion is used to treat cancers in the limbs. The patient’s blood is removed, heated, and reintroduced into the circulation along with anti-cancer drugs. Peritoneal cancers are sometimes treated with a technique called continuous hyperthermia peritoneal perfusion. In this approach, heated anti-cancer drugs are introduced into the space between the abdominal organs.

Patients with metastatic cancer may be treated with whole-body hyperthermia. This therapy involves raising the body temperature to about 108 degrees Fahrenheit by placing the patient in a hot water blanket or thermal chamber.

Does hyperthermia have any complications or side effects?

Fortunately, hyperthermia treatment does not damage normal tissue as long as the temperature is kept below 111 degrees Fahrenheit. However, certain tissues are more sensitive to heat and may be injured during hyperthermia. Side effects and complications of hyperthermia can include painful blisters and burns. Bleeding may occur following perfusion treatments. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and more serious side effects can occur with whole-body hyperthermia, but these are rare.

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