Lasers have become an important part of medical procedures. They have the precision and power to reshape your corneas through LASIK surgery, and they are delicate enough to break down the pigment colors of tattoo ink embedded in your skin. The possibilities of lasers and their applications in the field of health is only growing. Lasers have become particularly exciting as a form of treatment for cancer and relief for symptoms of cancer.
Lasers and Cancer Treatment
How does laser therapy work? Lasers are mainly suited to superficial forms of cancer, meaning cancers that appear on the surface of the body or on the lining of internal organs. While lasers may be used for growths found in deeper tissues, the process can be harder or require other forms of treatment. The most common types of cancer treated by lasers include:
- Basal cell skin cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Penile cancer
- Non-small cell lung cancer
Lasers themselves comprise high-intensity light that is focused into a narrow beam. The beam is set to a specific wavelength, which allows for varying levels of power. This can be used to excise cancer cells, but they can also heat cancer cells to a high temperature as a form of hyperthermia known as LITT, or laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy, which can be a laser treatment for skin cancer.
With this treatment, optical fibers are inserted into a tumor. The optical fibers emit a laser light that dramatically increases the temperature of the tumor. Cancer cells cannot survive high temperatures, resulting in dead cancer cells and shrunken tumors.
Lasers can also be used indirectly in a form of photodynamic therapy. This involves a photosensitizing agent, a type of medication that gets absorbed by the cells of your body. The photosensitizing agent stays in cancer cells longer. When exposed to certain types of light, like a laser beam, the drug activates and kills cancer cells in the process.
Although laser treatments can be used alone, most forms of cancer require a combination of treatments along with laser therapy. It’s not uncommon to use lasers in conjunction with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Lasers can also be used in other ways to promote healing and comfort. For example, a doctor may use a laser to seal lymph vessels, which can reduce swelling, inflammation, and the proliferation of tumor cells.
Types of Lasers Used in Cancer Treatment
“Laser” actually stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. A laser’s form or type is dictated by the solid, liquid, gas, or electronic element that creates the light. There are a wide range of different chemicals and compounds used for medical lasers, and with testing and research, new lasers are being discovered all the time.
The type of lasing medium used in the laser determines various properties of the beam, like its intensity, pulse duration, the different wavelength, and how deep it can cut into tissue, determines the best applications for that laser. The three main types of laser used in cancer treatment are carbon dioxide, argon, and Nd: YAG.
Carbon Dioxide Laser
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is fairly well known as the compound that you breathe out. CO2 laser or Carbon dioxide laser is adept at cutting or dissolving tissue with extreme precision and very little bleeding. This is beneficial as it essentially means that doctors can excise tumors or remove cancer cells without doing damage to deeper tissues or healthy tissue surrounding the abnormal growth. Carbon dioxide lasers are sometimes used for treating precancerous growths and some cancers that are still in their early stages.
Argon is the third most abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere. Much like a carbon dioxide laser, argon lasers can effectively cut cancerous material without going too deep into healthy tissue. Argon lasers are most often used for treating skin problems and some types of tumors found in the optical cavity. During colonoscopies, a doctor can use an argon laser to remove polyps, which are precancerous growths that can eventually become malignant.
This laser type is also often used to activate the drugs in photodynamic therapy to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. Doctors may also use an argon laser to seal blood vessels and prevent bleeding from those who receive radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is a common treatment for various forms of cancer, but the treatment can potentially cause damage to blood vessels near tumors, resulting in tearing or bleeding. Sealing blood vessels with an argon laser can prevent blood loss and reduce pain.
Nd: YAG Laser
Neodymium: Yttrium-Aluminum-Garnet, or simply Nd: YAG, lasers can penetrate much deeper than carbon dioxide or argon lasers. Nd: YAG lasers also tend to make blood clots more quickly. ND: YAG lasers are most commonly used to treat cancers in internal organs and hard-to-reach areas, like the large intestine, uterus, or esophagus.
Nd: YAG lasers are most often used in conjunction with an endoscope. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube that features a camera at the end. The endoscope can be inserted into the body, and the camera can help to identify cancerous material. Optical fibers at the tip of the endoscope can emit the laser to eliminate any cancer cells that are found.
Gallium Arsenide (GaAS)
A Gallium Arsenide laser diode has a bigger wavelength than other types of surgical lasers. This means that it can penetrate more deeply. It is mainly used to treat painful skin conditions and deep tissue structures like herniated discs.
It can also be used as a pulsed laser treatment together with low-level laser treatment to help treat various types of cancer.
Advantages of Laser Therapy
So, what are the benefits of laser therapy? The biggest advantage of laser therapy is the level of precision that it affords. Lasers are exceptionally more precise than scalpels and other standard surgical tools. That naturally means less bleeding, pain, swelling, and scarring. Patients recover from laser surgery much faster, and they have a much lower risk of infections.
Laser therapy is also generally non-invasive. Laser therapy procedures are short, and they can be easily performed on an outpatient basis, in a doctor’s office.
Disadvantages of Laser Therapy
While laser therapy is a highly effective form of treatment, it does have its limitations. The equipment involved in the treatment can be bulky and cost a lot of money compared to other surgical tools.
Surgeons also require specialized training before they can perform any sort of treatment. This often means that not many doctors or nurses are trained to use lasers. When used on its own, some forms of laser therapy may not have long-lasting effects, so a patient may have to go through a few repeated treatments to get the full benefit. Sometimes the laser cannot remove a tumor completely during one treatment, so a doctor may have to repeat treatments.
Advancements in laser technology are allowing for less expensive equipment, and new research may bring new applications for laser therapy, including treatments for prostate and brain cancers. If you are weighing out your treatment options, consult your doctor to determine if laser therapy is the right form of treatment for you.
Written By: Dr. David Alvarez
Dr. David Alvarez is a Board Certified Medical Doctor from Universidad Xochicalco and Certified by the American Heart Association (Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support).
Dr. Alvarez has been collaborating with Dr. Bautista as an Assistant Medical Director at the Immunity Therapy Center for over 6 years. He provides daily on site patient care and participates on the medical board on research and development of patient treatment plans and programs. Dr. Alvarez is a knowledgeable and compassionate Doctor committed to helping patients get to where they want to be health wise through a more holistic and comprehensive approach.
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.