Treatment of cancer tumors with laser therapy is not a new concept. It has been used for several decades for airway disorders as well as other surgical procedures in a variety of areas in the body. This treatment option should not be confused with photodynamic therapy during which a chemical is injected into the body and absorbed by the cancer cells. The physician will then perform a bronchoscopy and direct a beam of laser light at the tumor to activate the chemical. The chemical then destroys the cancer cells.
Photodynamic therapy is currently being used in clinical trial on localized tumors but is under research, holding promise for patients who have advanced lung cancer or patients who have tumors pressing against other body structures.
Laser treatment for lung cancer is often used when the tumor obstructs the airway and decreases the function of the lung. In these instances the cancer may be so advanced that only palliative care is possible. The FDA has given physicians the green light to use laser for treatment of advanced stages of cancer in the esophagus as well. This helps to eliminate the need for a feeding tube.
Laser treatments have been approved for both advanced and early stages of lung cancer. At this time they are not utilized as much for early stage because it is difficult to detect lung cancer at the earliest stages of the disease. Because it is so difficult to detect, lung cancer is one of the biggest risks of cancer death in the United States and Great Britain.
It is important to increase the efficiency in which early stage lung cancer can be detected. This will include screening patients for high risk factors and then including them in clinical trials using a variety of methods for early screening and detection. By finding lung cancer early, laser therapy can be used to decrease the side effects of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment as well as increase the potential for cure. At this time laser treatment and photodynamic therapy are being tested on other types of cancers including skin cancer and breast cancer.
The use of laser therapy is not without complications which are unique to the procedure. If the eye is exposed to laser light retinal damage will result and on rare occasions there has been an endo-bronchial fire with the use of the bronchoscope in a high oxygen concentrated environment. Other complications include hemorrhaging, perforation, pneumothorax and systemic or cerebral air embolism. These complications are related to the use of light heat in a confined area.
Further research and development is needed to improve the use of laser treatment for early, middle and late stage lung cancer. Because of the lowered risk of side effects this treatment is a potential improvement in the method of treatment for patients who may not be able to withstand general surgery.