Laser surgery

Laser surgery uses a laser (an intense beam of light) to make bloodless cuts in tissue. It is also called laser therapy, photoablation or photocoagulation.

Laser surgery is most often combined with other cancer treatments like radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Why laser surgery is done

Laser surgery may be used in cancer treatment to:

  • destroy abnormal tissue or small tumours on or near the surface of the skin
  • relieve symptoms caused by tumours, such as pain, bleeding or shortness of breath
  • shrink a tumour causing a blockage

Laser surgery is most often used to treat precancerous conditions or carcinoma in situ of the cervix, vagina, vulva or penis.

Large tumours can't be removed with laser surgery.

How laser surgery is done

Laser surgery is usually done in a clinic or hospital operating room. Depending on what type of laser surgery you are having, you may be given an anesthetic or sedative before the procedure. Your doctor may use an endoscope (a tube-like instrument with a light and lens) to find the tumour inside of an organ. When the tumour or abnormal area is found, the endoscope is used to aim the laser beam to treat the tissue.

The laser beam heats and vaporizes abnormal cells, so that a tumour is removed or made smaller to relieve symptoms, like a blockage or bleeding. The laser may be used to cut a small piece of tissue to be removed so it can be looked at under a microscope.

Types of laser

Lasers are named for the gas, liquid, or solid used to make the light. Different types of lasers can be used in laser surgery. They differ in how deep the laser cuts into tissues. The following 3 types of lasers are most commonly used in cancer treatment.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) laser removes thin layers from the surface of the skin without going into deeper layers. It is used to treat tumours on the surface of the skin or organ (they have not grown deeply into the tissue). It is also used to treat certain precancerous conditions.

Argon lasers can only go through a thin layer of tissue. This type of laser is used to treat some types of eye cancer and skin cancer. It may also be used to remove a polyp during a colonoscopy. Argon lasers are used for photodynamic therapy (PDT), which uses drugs that become active when they are exposed to light (called photosensitizers) to destroy cancer cells.

Nd:YAG lasers can go deeper into tissue than other types of lasers. This type of laser can be carried through fibre optic cables in an endoscope to treat parts of the body that are hard to reach. Nd:YAG lasers are used to treat certain types of cancer, including throat, skin, liver and prostate cancers. Because they can make blood clot quickly, they are also used to stop bleeding.

Side effects

Side effects can occur with any type of treatment, but not everyone has them or experiences them in the same way. Side effects of laser surgery include bleeding, pain and fever.

Special considerations for children

Being prepared for a test or procedure can lower anxiety, increase cooperation and help the child develop coping skills. Parents or caregivers can help prepare children by explaining to them what will happen, including what they will see, feel and hear during the procedure.

How you help a child prepare for laser surgery depends on their age and experience. Find out more about helping children cope with tests and treatment.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society . Lasers in cancer surgery . American Cancer Society . American Cancer Society (ACS) . Atlanta, GA : American Cancer Society ; 2011 :
  • Muthusamy,V.R., Pelligrini,C.A. and Byrd,D.R. . Laser therapy. Ko, A. H., Dollinger, M., & Rosenbaum, E. Everyone's Guide to Cancer Therapy: How Cancer is Diagnosed, Treated and Managed Day to Day. 5th ed. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2008: 10:pp92-97.
  • National Cancer Institute. FactSheet: Lasers in Cancer Treatment: Questions and Answers. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2011.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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