Lasers have several advantages over standard surgical tools: Lasers are more precise than scalpels. Tissue near an incision is protected, since there is little contact with surrounding skin or other tissue. The heat produced by lasers sterilizes the surgery site, thus reducing the risk of infection. Less operating time may be needed because the precision of the laser allows for a smaller incision. Healing time is often shortened; since laser heat seals blood vessels, there is less bleeding, swelling, or scarring.
Laser surgery may be less complicated. For example, with fiber optics, laser light can be directed to parts of the body without making a large incision. More procedures may be done on an outpatient basis. There are also disadvantages with laser surgery: Relatively few surgeons are trained in laser use. Laser equipment is expensive and bulky compared with the usual surgical tools, such as scalpels. Strict safety precautions must be observed in the operating room. (For example, the surgical team and the patient must use eye protection. Treating Cancer with Lasers Lasers can be used in two ways to treat cancer: by shrinking or destroying a tumor with heat, or by activating a chemical — known as a photosensitizing agent — that destroys cancer cells. In PDT, a photosensitizing agent is retained in cancer cells and can be stimulated by light to cause a reaction that kills cancer cells. Lasers are used to shrink or destroy tumors. They may be used with endoscopes, tubes that allow physicians to see into certain areas of the body, such as the bladder.
The light from some lasers can be transmitted through a flexible endoscope fitted with fiber optics. This allows physicians to see and work in parts of the body that could not otherwise be reached except by surgery and therefore allows very precise aiming of the laser beam. Lasers also may be used with low-power microscopes, giving the doctor a clear view of the site being treated. Used with other instruments, laser systems can produce a cutting area as small as 200 microns in diameter — less than the width of a very fine thread.
Lasers are used to treat many types of cancer. Laser surgery is a standard treatment for certain stages of glottis (vocal cord), cervical, skin, and lung cancers. In addition to its use to destroy the cancer, laser surgery is also used to help relieve symptoms caused by cancer (palliative care). For example, lasers may be used to shrink or destroy a tumor that is blocking a patient’s trachea (windpipe), making it easier to breathe.