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Laser Therapy for Cancer Treatment

Laser therapy for cancer treatment

The term LASER stands for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Laser light is concentrated so that it makes a very powerful and precise tool. Laser therapy uses light to treat cancer cells. Consider the following additional information regarding laser therapy:

  • Lasers can cut a very tiny area, less than the width of the finest thread, to remove very small cancers without damaging surrounding tissue.

  • Lasers are used to apply heat to tumors to shrink them.

  • Lasers are sometimes used with drugs that are activated by laser light to kill cancer cells.

  • Laser beams can be bent by going through tubes to access hard-to-reach places.

  • Lasers can be used along with microscopes to let doctors view the site being treated.

How are lasers used during cancer surgery?

Laser surgery is a type of surgery that uses special light beams instead of instruments, such as scalpels, to do surgery. There are several different types of lasers, each used to do specific functions during surgery. Laser light can be delivered either continuously or intermittently. It can be used with fiber optics to treat areas of the body that are often difficult to access. The following are some of the different types of lasers used for cancer treatment:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers. Carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers can remove a very thin layer of tissue from the surface of the skin without removing deeper layers. The CO2 laser may be used to remove skin cancers and some precancerous cells.

  • Neodymium:yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Nd:YAG) lasers. Nd:YAG lasers can get deeper into tissue and can cause blood to clot quickly. The laser light can be carried through optical fibers to reach less accessible internal parts of the body. For example, the Nd:YAG laser can be used to treat throat cancer.

  • Laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy (LITT). LITT uses lasers to heat certain areas of the body. The lasers are directed to areas within body tissues that are near a tumor. The heat from the laser increases the temperature of the tumor, thereby shrinking, damaging, or destroying the cancer cells.

  • Argon lasers. Argon lasers pass only through superficial layers of tissue such as skin. Argon lasers can be useful in treating skin problems or eye surgery. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses argon laser light to activate chemicals in the cancer cells.

What is photodynamic therapy?

Because cancer cells can be selectively destroyed while most healthy cells are spared, PDT is useful for the treatment of certain cancer tumors. Photodynamic therapy (also called photoradiation therapy or photochemotherapy) is a treatment that uses a combination of a light source and a photosensitizing agent (a medication that is activated by light). The photosensitizing agent is usually injected into the blood and collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. When the laser's light is focused directly on the tumor, the cancer cells absorb the light, and a chemical reaction occurs which destroys the cancer cells.

The FDA has approved the use of PDT for certain types of cancer that are found just under the skin or in the lining of certain organs, because PDT can only pass through a limited tissue depth. Cancer types that may be treated with PDT include cancer of the esophagus, non-small cell lung cancer, and actinic keratosis (a precancerous skin lesion). Advantages of PDT as shown in clinical trials are potentially fewer side effects than other treatments and the ability to use the treatment repeatedly at the same site if needed.

Major side effects of PDT include sensitivity to light and swelling at the treatment site. Both the eyes and skin are affected by light sensitivity, which may last up to 3 months after treatment. Swelling can cause pain and may result in difficulty swallowing or breathing, depending on the location of treatment. Other side effects may occur, depending on the area being treated and a small amount of damage may occur in healthy tissue. As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any or all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

What cancers may be treated with laser therapy?

Lasers are used in surgery for the following types of cancer because they often have a special requirement that only lasers can meet, such as the ability to reach a hard to treat location, apply heat, or cut only a very small area:

  • Vocal cords

  • Esophagus

  • Cervical

  • Skin

  • Lung

  • Vaginal

  • Vulvar

Laser surgery is also used for palliative surgery in people with cancer. The purpose of palliative surgery is to help the person feel better and more comfortable or function better even though it may not treat the cancer. An example of this type of surgery may involve the removal of a growth that is making it difficult for a person to eat comfortably.

Online Medical Reviewer: Levin, Mark, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Taylor, Wanda, RN, Ph.D.
Date Last Reviewed: 12/30/2015
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