You have likely heard about chemotherapy, radiation, and traditional surgery as treatments for cancer. But some cancers can also be treated with laser surgery, which uses a beam of light to kill abnormal or cancerous cells.

Laser surgery can be particularly effective for precancerous cervical lesions or early stage cervical cancer. It usually takes less time for the procedure and recovery than other forms of cervical cancer treatment.

Read on to learn more about laser surgery for cervical cancer, how it works, and its possible risks and benefits.

Laser surgery is when a laser (a high-powered, narrow, and focused beam of light) is used to shrink or destroy cancerous cells. Because a laser is so focused, it targets cancer cells more precisely, causing less bleeding and damage to surrounding tissues.

Laser surgery for cervical cancer is most often used for early stage cancer. It can also be used to treat precancerous lesions, which are abnormal cells found on a Pap smear. Later stages of cervical cancer usually require more invasive treatment.

Types of lasers

Carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers are the most commonly used type for cervical cancer. These lasers are used to remove thin layers of tissue with abnormal or cancerous cells from the lining of your cervix.

Lasers can also be used in a surgery called a cone biopsy, or conization. In this procedure, a wedge of tissue is removed from the area of the cervix where precancers and early cancers are most likely to start.

While a cone biopsy can be used to take tissue for biopsy, a laser will destroy the abnormal cells, so it is more likely to be used when early stage cancer is confirmed but is high in your cervix.

About the procedure

For your laser surgery, you may have local anesthesia, which involves a numbing medicine injected into your cervix. Other times, you may be sedated with general anesthesia. Cone biopsies are typically done under general anesthesia.

During the procedure, the doctor will use a speculum to hold your vagina open. The laser beam will then be focused through your vagina — usually through a long, thin tube — to burn off abnormal or cancerous cells. You might smell some burning, but that’s just the laser working.

Laser surgery for cervical cancer takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Both types of laser surgery are done as an outpatient treatment, so you’ll be able to go home within a few hours after the procedure.

Most people are able to return to many of their normal activities in about 2 to 3 weeks. If you have a cone biopsy, it might take 4 to 6 weeks to return to normal activities. Your recovery time also depends on how much tissue was removed.

Here are a few tips for helping you get through the recovery period:

  • Use pads instead of tampons if you get your period or experience bleeding. Light bleeding and discharge are common during recovery.
  • Avoid sex. No matter what kind of laser surgery you have, your doctor might recommend avoiding sex for up to 6 weeks.
  • Don’t lift anything heavy.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise, but light exercise should be fine. Short walks and other light activity may actually help you recover more quickly.
  • You can shower or bathe right away, but avoid douching.
  • As long as your job doesn’t require strenuous activity, you can return to work as soon as you feel comfortable.

You should have a follow-up appointment with a Pap test no more than 6 months after your surgery. Your doctor will then recommend a schedule for regular Pap tests going forward.

Common side effects of laser surgery include:

  • watery discharge
  • light bleeding

Both can continue for several weeks as you recover. You should call your doctor if you’re uncomfortable, but otherwise, these symptoms are nothing to worry about.

However, other serious side effects can happen, but are much less common. Call right away your doctor if you have:

The list of symptoms above may be signs of a rare but serious complication, such as:

How well laser surgery works for or early stage cervical cancer — and sometimes precancer — depends on what type of laser surgery you get:

Localized cervical cancer generally has a 92 percent 5-year relative survival rate.

For precancerous lesions, the rate of treatment failure for laser surgery is about the same as with other treatments. According to one 2019 study of 161 people:

  • around 5.1 percent of treatments fail within the first year
  • around 6.4 percent of treatments fail within the second year
  • around 9.5 percent of treatments fail within the fifth year

If the cancer comes back after laser surgery, you might be able to have laser surgery again, or your doctor may want to try another treatment.

Laser surgery can be a safe and effective treatment for early stage cervical cancer and precancerous cervical lesions. It can be done as an outpatient treatment and usually only requires a few weeks of recovery time.