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What is Cryosurgery?

Cryosurgery (also called cryotherapy) is the use of extreme cold to destroy cancer cells. 

Traditionally, it has been used to treat external tumors, such as those on the skin, but recently some physicians have begun using it as a treatment for tumors that occur inside the body. Cryosurgery for internal tumors is increasing as a result of developments in technology over the past several years.

For external tumors, liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Celsius, -320.8 degrees Fahrenheit) is applied directly to the cancer cells with a cotton swab or spraying device. For internal tumors, liquid nitrogen is circulated through an instrument called a cryoprobe, which is placed in contact with the tumor. To guide the cryoprobe and to monitor the freezing of the cells, the physician uses ultrasound (computerized moving pictures of the body generated by high-frequency sound waves). By using ultrasound, physicians hope to spare nearby healthy tissue.

Cryosurgery often involves a cycle of treatments in which the tumor is frozen, allowed to thaw, and then refrozen.

How is Cryosurgery used in prostate cancer treatment?

Cryosurgery is being evaluated in the treatment of a number of cancers, including prostate cancer. Cryosurgery may be used to treat men with early-stage cancer that is confined to the prostate gland, particularly when standard treatments such as surgery and radiation are unsuccessful or cannot be used. For men in good physical condition with cancer limited to the prostate, however, the standard treatments of prostatectomy (surgical removal of the prostate) or radiation therapy are usually considered better options. Cryosurgery is not considered an effective treatment for prostate cancer that has spread outside the gland, or to distant parts of the body.

It is important to point out that although cryosurgery may be considered an alternative to surgery or radiation therapy in a limited number of cases, its long-term effectiveness has not been demonstrated conclusively.

For more information about cryosurgery, its application, and side effects, please read the booklet: Questions and Answers About Cryosurgery in Cancer Treatment from the National Cancer Institute.

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