Laser treatment

A laser is a very thin, focused beam of light that heats and destroys tissue. Lasers can focus very accurately on tiny areas.

Doctors can use lasers:

  • instead of blades (scalpels) for surgery
  • to heat and destroy small areas of cancer or precancerous cells
  • together with a light sensitive drug (photodynamic therapy)

There are different types of lasers depending upon the area they are treating. 

What is laser treatment?

Laser treatment uses a narrow, thin beam of light. The laser removes or destroys abnormal or cancerous cells. Doctors might use laser therapy on its own. Or you have it with other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy.

Using lasers for surgery

Surgeons can 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.

Laser therapy to destroy abnormal or cancerous cells

Doctors can use laser beams to burn away abnormal or cancerous cells. This is called laser ablation. It can:

  • destroy small areas of precancerous cells
  • shrink or destroy cancers
  • relieve some cancer symptoms such as bleeding or blockage

Combining laser with a light sensitive drug (photodynamic therapy)

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) combines a drug that makes cells sensitive to light with exposure to a type of light. The drug is called a photosensitiser or photosensitising agent.

Who can have laser treatment?

Laser therapy is a treatment for:

  • abnormal cells that might become cancerous (precancerous cells) - including abnormal cells on the cervix, vulva or vagina
  • early stage penile cancer
  • basal cell skin cancer, combined with a light sensitive drug (photodynamic therapy)
  • some advanced cancers inside the body - for example the food pipe (oesophagus), stomach or the windpipe (trachea)

For very early cancers, the laser cuts or burns away the cancerous tissue.

For more advanced cancers, laser therapy can shrink or destroy tumours. This can help to relieve blockages in the body.

Where you go to have laser treatment

You have laser therapy in hospital. You usually have treatment as a day case and go home on the same day.

You usually have the laser therapy in the outpatient department to treat:

  • penile cancer
  • abnormal cells on your cervix, vulva or vagina

For other cancers, you might have treatment in the x-ray or endoscopy department.

How you have laser treatment

You can have laser treatment in different ways. How you have it depends on where the cancer or abnormal cells are in your body. 

You might have laser treatment:

  • directly to your skin -  to treat penile cancer
  • using a speculum to look inside the vagina - to treat abnormal cells on the cervix, vagina or vulva
  • through a flexible tube (a scope) - to treat cancers inside your body such as lung or stomach cancer

Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you beforehand. They will tell you how you will have treatment and exactly what it involves.

Before you have laser treatment

You usually have treatment at the hospital as an outpatient.

Your appointment letter will tell you where to go and if you need to do anything to prepare.

You might have a local anaesthetic for treatment to your cervix, vulva or vagina. But some people have this treatment under a general anaesthetic. 

For other cancers types you might have an injection to make you sleepy (sedation). Or you have a general anaesthetic which means you are asleep during the treatment. 

Before some treatments you shouldn’t eat or drink anything beforehand. Your appointment letter will tell you more about this. 

Having laser therapy to treat abnormal cells on the cervix, vagina or vulva

You usually have this treatment as an outpatient in the gynaecology unit at the hospital. 

You lie on a couch, with your legs raised up in stirrups. Your doctor puts a speculum into your vagina to hold it open. They then put local anaesthetic onto your cervix, vaginal wall or vulva. This numbs the area.

Your doctor points 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 straight after the treatment.

Having laser treatment for penile cancer

You might have laser treatment for very early cancer of the penis. You have this treatment under a general anaesthetic which means you are asleep.

The surgeon uses a powerful beam of light. This acts like a knife. It cuts away the tumour but does not go too deep into the tissue. 

Having laser treatment for cancers inside your body (internal cancers)

Laser therapy can treat cancers in the:

  • windpipe (trachea) or lung airway (bronchus)
  • food pipe (oesophagus)
  • stomach
  • voice box (larynx)
  • head and neck area, such as the tonsil, mouth, and nasal sinuses

To reach internal tumours doctors use a tube with a light at one end, and an eyepiece at the other end.

For lung or windpipe cancers, you have a bronchoscopy using a tube called a bronchoscope.

For cancers inside your food pipe or stomach you have an endoscopy using a tube called an endoscope. 

Having a bronchoscopy

You usually have a general anaesthetic.

Your doctor uses a long, thin, flexible tube called a bronchoscope. They put this down your throat and into the airway. The doctor passes a small laser down the bronchoscope tube.

The doctor burns away as much of the tumour as possible with the laser. They then take out the bronchoscopy tube.

Having an endoscopy

You usually have medicine to make you sleepy. Or you might have a general anaesthetic which means you are asleep during the treatment. 

Your doctor gently puts a long flexible tube called an endoscope into your mouth. It goes down into your food pipe. The tube has a light and a small camera on the end so your doctor can see inside your food pipe and stomach.

To relive symptoms of a blockage (laser ablation)

The doctors position the end of the tube close to the tumour and direct the laser at it. This heats up the cancer cells and burns them away. This reduces the blockage or gets rid of it completely. 

We have further information about laser treatment for stomach and oesophageal cancer. You can select the oesophageal or stomach cancer from the A-Z cancer type menu.

To remove early stage cancers (endoscopic resection)

The surgeons use the laser to cut away the areas of cancer. This type of laser therapy might be called endoscopic resection.

Side effects of laser treatment

The side effects of laser treatment depend on the area of your body that you're having treatment to. They also depend on whether the laser is for surgery or to destroy cancer cells.

Your doctor or specialist nurse will give you information about what to expect.

You can read more about side effects of laser therapy in the treatment section for your cancer type.

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    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley - Blackwell, 2015

  • Treatment of Cancer (6th Edition)
    P Price and K Sikora
    CRC Press, 2015

  • Penile-sparing modalities in the management of low-stage penile cancer
    P Babbar and others
    Urology Annals 2018 Volume 10, Issue 1, Pages 1–6.

  • Laser Treatment for Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-AnalysisE Sharon and others  
    American Journal of Clinical Dermatology 2021, Volume 22, Pages 25–38

  • Interventional procedure overview of transurethral laser ablation for recurrent non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer
    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) 2019

  • Low-level laser therapy for preventing or treating oral mucositis caused by radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Interventional procedures guidance
    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2018

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2022
Next review due: 
05 May 2025

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