Hyperthermia treatment is an emerging cancer treatment that uses high temperatures to kill cancer cells. When combined with other cancer treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy, outcomes have been promising.

The survival rates for many types of cancer continue to improve largely due to improvements in detection and treatment. Cancer remains the second highest cause of death in North America behind heart disease.

Hyperthermia is emerging as a promising cancer treatment for many types of cancers. It involves heating tissues to temperatures up to 113°F (45°C) to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells relatively unharmed.

Hyperthermia is currently only available at a small number of treatment centers in the United States and is usually performed in combination with traditional cancer treatments like radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Keep reading to learn more about the potential benefits of hyperthermia for treating cancer and what you can expect during the procedure.

Hyperthermia is a cancer treatment that involves heating your tissues to temperatures up to 113°F (45°C) to kill cancer cells. This treatment goes by several other names such as thermal therapy or thermal ablation.

Very high temperatures can damage or kill cancer cells while leaving noncancerous cells relatively healthy. It can also make cancer cells more susceptible to other cancer treatments like radiation or chemotherapy.

In clinical trials, researchers found that temperatures of 106°F to 111°F (41°C to 44°C) were not toxic to healthy cells but were toxic to cancer cells.

The idea of using heat to treat cancer isn’t new. Historic records have found evidence that ancient people in Egypt, India, and China used heat to cauterize tumors. They also used volcanic steam and mud baths for general well-being.

The modern history of using heat to treat cancer dates back to the 1850s when surgeons William B. Coley and Carl D.W. Busch observed that fevers were associated with the regression of tumors.

Since then, researchers have developed various ways to heat cancer cells to specific temperatures. These include:

According to the National Cancer Institute, hyperthermia is almost always combined with other cancer treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

It has also been used with:

Hyperthermia in the range of 102°F to 109°F (39°C to 43°C) is under investigation for treating many different types of cancer such as:

Local treatment (heat applied to a small area)Regional treatment (heat applied to an entire cavity, organ, or limb)
breast cancercervical cancer
soft tissue sarcomabladder cancer
head and neck cancerovarian cancer
melanomaprostate cancer
pancreatic cancer
rectal cancer
soft tissue sarcoma
colon cancer
stomach cancer
primary peritoneal carcinoma
peritoneal mesothelioma
pseudomyxoma peritonei

There are three types of hyperthermia treatment: local, regional, and whole body.

Local hyperthermia

Local hyperthermia is used to heat a small part of your body. Types of local hyperthermia include:

  • External hyperthermia: A device is placed on your skin that heats the area around the cancer.
  • Intraluminal (endocavitary hyperthermia): A probe that creates heat is placed inside a tumor in a cavity like your rectum or esophagus.
  • Interstitial hyperthermia: A doctor inserts heated probes or needles in your tumor while you’re asleep with general anesthesia. It’s used to treat deep tumors such as those in your brain that may require higher temperatures.

Regional hyperthermia

Regional hyperthermia is when doctors heat larger parts of your body like an entire cavity, limb, or organ. Techniques include:

  • Deep tissue techniques: Heated devices are placed around an organ or cavity. This technique is used to treat cancers such as cervical cancer or bladder cancer.
  • Regional perfusion: Some of your blood is removed, heated, and pumped back into the affected limb or organ. You may also receive chemotherapy during the treatment.
  • Continuous hyperthermic peritoneal perfusion: This treatment is used to treat cancer in the space in your abdomen that contains your liver, stomach, and intestines. Heated chemotherapy drugs are pumped into this space to raise the temperature from 106°F to 108°F (41°C to 42°C).

Whole body hyperthermia

Whole body hyperthermia is used to treat cancer that has spread throughout your body. It involves raising the temperature of your whole body by getting in a hot bath, wrapping yourself in hot blankets, or entering a special chamber.

At this time, only a small number of hospitals and cancer centers in the U.S. have the technology and staff available to perform hyperthermia treatment. The exact procedure depends on the type of treatment you receive.

For example, if you’re receiving treatment in a small area, a doctor numbs the treatment area and inserts small probes with tiny thermometers into the tumor. The thermometers allow the doctor to check the temperature during treatment. Imaging techniques such as CT scans may be used to make sure the probes are in the right spot.

Typically, a temperature of 104°F to 109°F (40°C to 43°C) is applied for about 1 hour. However, treatment can range from several minutes to many hours.

Many clinical trials have used hyperthermia treatment once or twice per week for about 4 or 5 weeks.

You may receive hyperthermia treatment before or after other cancer treatments. You can usually go home the same day unless you’re also having surgery.

Hyperthermia treatment mostly preserves healthy tissue. However high temperatures against your tissues can cause symptoms like:

  • burns
  • blisters
  • pain

Perfusion, where your blood is removed and heated, can cause:

Common side effects of whole-body hyperthermia include:

More rarely, it can cause heart and blood vessel problems.

Hyperthermia treatment is especially effective for parts of the tumor that don’t receive much oxygen or nutrients.

Researchers are continuing to examine the effectiveness of hyperthermia in treating various types of cancers. They’ve found promising outcomes when combined with other standard treatments.

For example, a 2020 clinical trial found that hyperthermia combined with chemotherapy before surgery improved 10-year survival in 200 women with stage IIB or IIIA breast cancer compared to women only given chemotherapy and surgery.

More research is needed to understand hyperthermia’s role in cancer treatment. For now, it’s still largely considered experimental.

Its effectiveness has been evaluated in phase III randomized clinical trials and meta-analyses for cancers such as:

  • head and neck cancers
  • breast cancer
  • cervical cancers

Many insurance providers provide coverage for hyperthermia treatment in certain circumstances. It’s important to check with your insurance provider before you start treatment.

Local hyperthermia is covered under Medicare when used together with radiation therapy for treating:

  • primary cutaneous (skin) or subcutaneous (under the skin) cancers
  • metastatic (spread from other distant body parts) cutaneous or subcutaneous cancers

Medicare doesn’t cover hyperthermia alone or with chemotherapy.

The private insurance provider Aetna considers hyperthermia treatment medically necessary in six cases:

  • combined with surgery to treat pseudomyxoma peritonei
  • combined with surgery to treat peritoneal mesothelioma
  • combined with surgery to treat goblet cell carcinoid tumors
  • combined with cisplatin for stage III ovarian cancer
  • for stage II, IIIA, and stage III in-transit melanoma of the limbs
  • combined with sequential radiation for treating subcutaneous superficial cancers

Without insurance, hyperthermia treatment can run thousands of dollars. In a study from the early 2000s called the Dutch Deep Hypothermia Trial, researchers calculated an average cost of 6,800 euros for five treatments. Another Dutch study using data from 2018 reported an average cost of 10,877.17 euros (about $12,847.03 in 2018).

Hyperthermia treatment is an emerging cancer treatment that involves heating cancer cells to temperatures up to 113°F (45°C).

Research suggests that it might be an effective treatment for many different cancers when combined with other treatments like radiation therapy or chemotherapy. For now, it’s only available at a small number of cancer centers in the U.S. and is still largely considered experimental.

Your cancer care team can help you decide whether you might benefit from hyperthermia treatment. You can also search for clinical trials on the National Cancer Institute’s website to see if there are any hyperthermia trials you may be eligible for.