Current surgical treatments for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) include radio-frequency ablation (RFA), resection, and orthotropic liver transplant (OLT). RFA is particularly attractive in these high-risk patients because surgery is associated with high mortality and there is a relative scarcity of organs available for those in need of transplants. This study was performed to evaluate the management of cirrhotic patients with HCC undergoing RFA at a single Western institution. A retrospective study from March 1999 to June 2002 was performed to evaluate the clinicopathologic and treatment-related variables in cirrhotic patients with HCC. Forty-nine lesions in 26 patients with HCC and cirrhosis underwent RFA. Data was analyzed for safety and overall survival as the main endpoints. The mean age was 60.4 +/- 11 years, 19 patients were male, 5 had hepatitis B virus, and 19 had hepatitis C virus. The Child classification was 26 per cent, 39 per cent, and 35 per cent for A, B, and C; the number of lesions was 1 in 62 per cent, 2 in 23 per cent, and more than 2 in 15 per cent. The approach was laparoscopic in 58 per cent, percutaneous in 15 per cent, and open in 27 per cent. There were no mortalities and only 1 complication. Average hospital stay was 2.7 +/- 2 days. Subsequent to RFA, 9 patients underwent an OLT within a median of 4.1 months. The median follow-up of the whole group was 13 months and the disease-free survival 9.3 months. Tumor recurrence was identified in 3 previously ablated lesions, nonablated liver in 11, and as pulmonary metastases in 3. Overall survival (P = 0.03) was prolonged for those treated with RFA + OLT over RFA alone. We conclude that RFA is a safe ablative technique in high-risk cirrhotic patients with HCC. This technique may provide a bridge to OLT; however, it remains to be proven whether it prolongs survival in those who do not undergo OLT.