“Laser” is actually an acronym that stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Whether it’s from your lamp or from the sun, light naturally emits numerous different wavelengths spreading in different directions. A laser is set to one specific wavelength that is focused into a single, narrow beam.
This high-intensity beam is capable of a wide range of things, even cutting through steel or reshaping diamonds. However, the precise nature of lasers also allows for more delicate applications, even certain medical procedures, like LASIK laser surgery and tattoo removal.
As laser technology has advanced, those medical applications have grown to even include cancer treatment. Laser radiation cancer treatment has become an effective therapy for cancer, though it can seem highly intimidating to the uninformed. Read our guide on laser cancer treatment below.
How Are Lasers Used to Treat Cancer?
So how does laser therapy work? It uses the high-intensity light of lasers to effectively shrink or destroy the tumor cell and remove precancerous growths. Lasers can be used directly to precisely cut away cancerous material, but they can also be used as a laser treatment for skin cancer and other cancer symptoms.
Laser-Induced Interstitial Thermotherapy
Laser therapy can also be used in laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy (LITT). This form of treatment is a type of hyperthermia treatment. During LITT, optical fibers are inserted into a cancerous growth. The optical fibers emit a laser light that greatly increases the temperature of the tumor cells. Tumor cells are unable to survive high temperatures, so exposure to extreme heat can damage or destroy them, effectively shrinking the cancerous tumor.
Lasers can also be used in the form of photodynamic therapy (PDT). This treatment starts with the injection of a drug called a photosensitizer or photosensitizing agent. All the cells in your body absorb this agent, though, within a few days, most of the chemical collects within the cancerous cells. These cells are then exposed to a laser light, which activates the drug. The drug proceeds to damage the cancer cells.
Treating Cancer-Related Symptoms
Along with treating cancer directly, laser therapy can be used as a means of relieving symptoms of cancer. Laser therapy can remove obstructions, like polyps in the large intestine or growths in the trachea or esophagus. Lasers can also stop bleeding caused by surgery or radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is an effective treatment, but it can also cause weakness or damage to blood vessels near the tumor, causing them to tear and bleed. Lasers can be used to cauterize any tears to stop bleeding.
Low level laser therapy (LLLT) may also help with treating lymphedema, a side effect of breast cancer surgery that can cause swelling in the arms. Research is also looking at the potential for low-level laser therapy to treat or prevent mouth sores caused by chemotherapy.
Types of Cancer That Can Be Treated with Laser Therapy
While laser therapy could theoretically be used for any cancer, it is best suited for superficial cancers, meaning cancers that are on your skin or on the surface of the lining of your organs, as well as precancerous growths and early-stage cancers. The most common cancers treated by laser therapy include:
- Basal cell skin cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Penile cancer
- Non-small cell lung cancer
LITT may be used for some forms of liver cancer. New research and clinical trials suggest the possibilities of laser therapy for treating other types of cancer, including cancers of the brain and prostate.
Types of Lasers Used for Cancer Treatment
Different types of lasers are used in laser cancer treatment. These are characterized by the type of gas, liquid, or solid used to create the light and radiation. While there are a wide range of different lasers, the three most common lasers used in cancer treatment are carbon dioxide, argon, and neodymium: yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG).
Carbon dioxide lasers can cut and dissolve tissue without causing any bleeding or damaging neighboring healthy tissue. The beam is fairly limited in how deep it can penetrate, meaning there is very little risk of harm to deep tissues. Carbon dioxide lasers are most often used for early stage cancers and precancerous growths.
Much like carbon dioxide lasers, argon lasers cannot cut deep into tissues. Argon lasers are used in photodynamic therapy, and they are often used in the treatment of skin problems and certain types of eye tumors. Argon lasers are also sometimes used during colonoscopies to remove polyps.
Neodymium: yttrium aluminum garnet, simply known as Nd: YAG, lasers can penetrate much deeper than carbon dioxide or argon lasers. A Nd:YAG laser is most often used in conjunction with an endoscope, a tool comprising a thin, flexible tube with a camera at its end. Endoscopes can get into hard-to-reach parts of the body, like the large intestine or the esophagus. Optical fibers at the tip of an endoscope can emit the laser to heat or excise the cancerous cells.
Benefits of Laser Therapy
So, what are the benefits of laser therapy? The key benefit of laser therapy for cancer is the level of precision. The narrow beam of a laser allows for excellent precision, more so than a scalpel or other standard surgical tools. This means that a surgeon can easily target tumors or cancer cells without touching or even damaging the surrounding tissue of the growth. That means less bleeding, pain, inflammation, or scarring from the laser surgery, all of which contributes to less recovery for the patient. Patients generally heal much faster from a laser therapy procedure, and the process can reduce the risk of infections.
Laser therapy is also a much shorter procedure, which benefits doctors and patients. The non-invasive or minimally invasive nature of laser treatments allow them to be performed on an outpatient basis.
Drawbacks to Laser Therapy
Laser therapy does come with some drawbacks and limitations. Current laser equipment is bulky and expensive compared to other surgical tools. This can make laser treatments inaccessible to some health care providers, which often means that not many doctors, nurses, or clinicians are trained to use lasers. While laser therapy is considered safe, surgeons require specialized training to use lasers, and laser treatments necessitate strict safety precautions to protect the patient and the entire surgical team. Thankfully, new advances in laser technology are gradually allowing for smaller and more affordable laser equipment.
For larger tumors, one laser treatment session may not be enough, meaning you may have to repeat treatments a few times to completely remove the cancerous tissue. The effects of the laser treatment may not last long, which would also necessitate repeat treatments. For this reason, laser treatments are often used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, to more effectively remove cancerous material.
Laser therapy continues to be a growing technology. New research is looking at how laser treatments can treat cancer, reduce cancer symptoms, and provide greater comfort for patients dealing with the side effects of cancer treatments. As it currently stands, laser therapy is a viable and effective treatment, depending on the type and stage of cancer. If you think you may benefit from laser therapy, consult your doctor to determine the best treatment options.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.