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Laser Surgery for Skin Cancer

Surgery Overview

Laser surgery uses a wavelength of light that is focused in a narrow beam. This high-intensity light is used to shrink or destroy skin cancers or pre-cancers (actinic keratosis). With lasers, there is usually less bleeding, swelling, and scarring. Healing is quicker, and you are less likely to get an infection.

Several different types of lasers are used to treat skin cancers, including the carbon dioxide (CO2) laser.

What To Expect After Surgery

The wound will be painful for a few days after laser surgery. Healing usually occurs in 2 to 4 weeks.

Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions for caring for your wound.

Why It Is Done

Laser surgery may be used to treat an actinic keratosis, and in rare cases, low-risk basal cell carcinoma.

How Well It Works

Laser surgery is an effective treatment for actinic keratosis.1

If laser surgery is used to treat basal cell skin carcinomas, it should only be used for low-risk cancers.2 While laser surgery may work well for these types of cancer, it may not remove all of the cancer and prevent it from coming back.

Risks

There is a slight risk of infection associated with laser surgery. Be sure to call your doctor if you have any of these signs of infection:

  • Increased pain, swelling, redness, tenderness, or heat.
  • Red streaks extending from the area.
  • Discharge of pus.
  • Fever of 100 F (38 C) or higher with no other cause.

What To Think About

Laser surgery usually isn't used for basal cell carcinoma. With laser surgery, it isn't possible to make sure all the cancer cells are gone. Other types of surgery, such as excision or Mohs, remove tissue and can check to make sure all the cancer is gone.

Complete the surgery information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you prepare for this surgery.

References

Citations

  1. Duncan KO, et al. (2012). Epithelial precancerous lesions. In LA Goldman et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1261–1283. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Vishal M, et al. (2010). Non-melanoma skin cancer. Lancet, 375: 673–685.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Amy McMichael, MD - Dermatology
Last Revised October 2, 2012

Last Revised: October 2, 2012

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