A laser is a very thin, focused beam of light that heats the tissue it is directed at. Lasers can focus very accurately on tiny areas.
What laser treatment is
Doctors can use laser beams to burn away abnormal or cancerous cells. This is called laser ablation and it can:
- destroy small areas of precancerous cells
- shrink or destroy tumours
- relieve some cancer symptoms such as bleeding or blockage
Surgeons can also use lasers instead of scalpels during surgery. The lasers can cut through body tissue very precisely. An advantage of using a laser is that it seals off the blood vessels as it cuts so there is very little bleeding.
Doctors may use laser therapy on its own. But they may also combine it with other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy.
Why you might have it
Lasers on their own are used to treat the very early stages of some cancers close to the surface of the body. These cancers include:
- cervical cancer
- penile cancer
- vaginal cancer
- vulval cancer
- melanoma of the eye
Lasers are also used to treat some advanced cancers on the lining of internal organs such as the food pipe (oesophagus) or the windpipe (trachea). Sometimes laser surgery may be used to treat the early stages of non small cell lung cancer.
You might have laser treatment combined with a light sensitive drug if you have basal cell skin cancer. This is called photodynamic therapy.
Where you have laser treatment
You have laser therapy in hospital. For penile cancer or cervical, vaginal or vulval changes you usually have the laser therapy in the outpatient department. For internal cancers you may have treatment as an outpatient or in the operating theatre.
Laser therapy for different cancers
Your doctor uses a laser to burn away the abnormal cells.
You lie on a couch, with your legs raised up in stirrups. Your doctor puts a speculum into your vagina to hold it open and then puts local anaesthetic onto your cervix or vaginal wall to numb the area.
They then point the laser beam at the abnormal areas. The laser burns away the abnormal area. So you may notice a slight burning smell during the treatment.
This is nothing to worry about. It is just the laser working. You can usually go home as soon as this treatment is over.
This treatment is only used for very early cancer of the penis. The surgeon uses a powerful beam of light that acts like a knife. It cuts away the tumour but does not go too deep into the tissue. You have this treatment under a general anaesthetic.
Laser treatment can treat very early cancers. The laser cuts or burns away the cancerous tissue. For advanced cancers laser therapy can shrink or destroy tumours that cause a blockage in the body.
Laser therapy can treat cancers in the:
- windpipe (trachea) or lung airway (bronchus)
- food pipe (oesophagus)
- voice box (larynx)
- head and neck area, such as the tonsil, mouth, and nasal sinuses
To reach internal tumours doctors use a tube put inside the body. For example, for lung cancer or voice box (laryngeal) cancer the doctor uses a bronchoscopy to position the laser.
For cancers in the food pipe or stomach you have an endoscopy. The tube has a light at the end and an eyepiece so the doctor can see any abnormal areas. The doctor positions the end of the tube close to the tumour.
For early cancers you usually have a general anaesthetic and the surgeon uses the laser to cut away the areas of cancer. This type of laser therapy might be called endoscopic resection.
For advanced cancers causing a blockage you might have a local or general anaesthetic. The doctor then puts the tube into the body and close to the cancer. The laser burns away some of the tumour or all of it. This reduces the blockage or gets rid of it completely. This is called laser ablation.
Laser therapy destroys the cancer cells in the liver by heating them to high temperatures. It is also called laser induced interstitial thermotherapy (LITT) or interstitial laser photocoagulation.
You usually have a sedative that makes you feel drowsy. But you might have a general anaesthetic.
Your doctor injects a local anaesthetic into the skin of your abdomen to numb it, if you have sedation for the test. After the anaesthetic has worked your doctor pushes a flexible optical fibre tube through the skin over the liver and into the centre of the tumour.
Your doctor uses a CT scan or ultrasound scan to make sure the tip of the tube is in the right place. Then the laser heats the tumour and destroys it.
The process takes about 10 to 15 minutes and can treat tumours up to 5cm (2 inches) in size.
You can have treatment for more than one tumour if necessary. Usually, you can go home a few hours afterwards. You might need to have the treatment repeated.
Side effects of laser treatment
The side effects of laser treatment depend on whether it is being used for surgery or to destroy cancer cells. It also depends on the area of the body being treated. You might have pain and a high temperature for a few days afterwards.
Your doctor or specialist nurse will give you information about what to expect.