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Interventional Cancer Treatments
Basic Facts
The central goal of cancer treatment is to destroy, halt, or slow the uncontrolled growth of a tumor.
The term interventional describes treatments performed by inserting needles or long, thin tubes called catheters into the body through tiny incisions in the skin.
Interventional therapies used to treat cancer include chemoembolization, ablation, and brachytherapy.
Cancer arises when abnormal cells grow unusually rapidly and become masses known as tumors. Cancer tumors are invasive, meaning they can overrun and destroy normal body tissues. They can be metastatic, meaning they can spread from the site where they originally formed and grow in other parts of the body.

The central goal of cancer treatment is to stop the uncontrolled growth of a tumor. This goal has traditionally been achieved through one or more of the following:
  • Surgery;
  • Radiotherapy (such as radiation); or
  • Chemotherapy.
Interventional therapy means that a physician introduces instruments such as needles or catheters (long, thin tubes) into the body through tiny incisions in the skin. The instruments are then guided by an imaging technique called fluoroscopy to the cancer tumor. In this way, the physician can deliver cancer treatment directly to the tumor.

Compared to open surgery, interventional cancer therapy has the following advantages:
  • Requires fewer anesthetics;
  • Causes fewer traumas to the body;
  • Typically causes less pain;
  • Results in a shorter hospital stay; and
  • Requires a shorter recovery period.
Interventional therapy deposits chemotherapy drugs directly into the tumor, sparing healthy tissue. Therefore, a physician can safely use higher doses of these drugs. Interventional therapy presents similar advantages when compared to radiotherapy. The physician can aim radiation directly into the tumor, minimizing the impact on surrounding healthy body tissue.


Like normal body cells, cancer tumors are fed by blood vessels. Catheters that are inserted into arteries close to the surface of the skin and maneuvered through the body's arterial system can be guided directly to cancer tumors.

A physician typically inserts a catheter at a point in the groin to access the femoral artery, although he or she may sometimes use an arm artery. While monitoring the location of the catheter using fluoroscopy, a type of x ray, the physician steers the catheter through the arterial system to the tumor. Eventually, the physician delivers cancer treatment through the catheter directly to the tumor. The physician may also use long, thin needles to deliver treatment to cancer tumors.

The following types of cancer therapy are administered using interventional techniques:
Physicians deliver therapy through the blood vessels leading to a cancer tumor.
Physicians deliver therapy through the blood vessels leading to a cancer tumor.
Chemoembolization. Chemotherapy drugs are injected through a catheter that is placed directly into an artery that supplies a cancer tumor. Chemoembolization appears to hold promise especially for aggressive liver cancers.

Tumor ablation. Ablation means cell destruction. Tumor ablation delivers heat, cold, radiofrequency energy, or alcohol to kill cancer cells. Ablation of cancer cells is commonly performed with either catheters or needles to treat liver cancer, kidney cancer, and adrenal gland cancer.

Brachytherapy. In this procedure, the physician uses catheters or needles to place radioactive material sealed in seeds or wires directly into or near a cancer tumor. This technique delivers the benefits of radiotherapy while sparing surrounding healthy tissue from the side effects of radiation waves. Brachytherapy is an increasingly common treatment for prostate cancer.


The side effects and complications of interventional therapy depend upon the reason for the procedure and location of interventional treatment. In general, interventional therapy is safe and commonly associated with only minor side effects, including:
  • Low-grade fever;
  • Nausea; and
  • Pain.
The most serious risk is that an interventional procedure may cause hemorrhage, or bleeding, and, very rarely, death. Rarely, a needle may deposit cancer cells in the body as it is withdrawn, potentially raising the risk of the cancer spreading.

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