If you've been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, esophagus, nasopharynx or neck, you're understandably anxious -- not only about the disease itself, but also about the surgery that may be recommended to remove the tumors. Fortunately, this is an age of medical wonders, one of which is laser surgery. This use of precisely-focused, amplified light is well suited for the small scale and delicate nature of throat and neck surgeries. Here are three reasons you should give laser surgery some serious thought.
1. It Could Save Your Voice
If you suffer from cancer of the larynx (also known as the "voice box" because it contains the vocal cords), you're no doubt worried about the possibility of losing your natural voice forever as a necessary consequence of lifesaving surgery. Conventional surgery may involve removing the entire larynx and rerouting the upper edge of the windpipe to an entryway in the neck. This enables normal breathing but makes vocalizing impossible. Even when it's possible to spare the larynx by excising vocal cord tumors with conventional surgery, the tissue removed can cause sufficient damage to make your voice sound permanently harsh or hoarse.
Laser laryngeal surgery offers a possible alternative --one that removes your cancer but not your ability to speak or sing. The extreme precision of this technique permits the surgeon to "zap" vocal cord tumors so accurately that that vocal cords can heal normally, with no permanent harm to your voice. You'll still need some rehabilitation to allow the vocal cords to heal and to regain full control of your vocal mechanism, but the results should be more than worth it. Best of all, this procedure can be repeated if the cancer ever returns, again sparing your voice and your larynx.
2. It Can Reduce the Need for Other Treatments
No matter how skillful the surgeon, conventional cancer surgery often leaves a few cancerous cells behind, which is why chemotherapy and radiation are typically prescribed as a follow-up. By contrast, a laser beam is amazingly precise, with a cutting edge as tiny as 200 microns (the thickness of a tiny thread). The extraordinary accuracy of this "light scalpel" allows it to go right to the edge of a tumor without harming healthy adjoining cells, so your surgeon has a better chance of eliminating every bit of your tumor right there on the operating table. The right combination of advanced techniques, surgical skill, and a bit of luck just might make further treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation unnecessary.
3. It Does Less "Collateral Damage"
One of the trickiest issues in performing throat, nasopharyngeal or neck surgery is the dense network of tiny muscles, blood vessels and nerves responsible for so many different tasks. It's incredibly challenging to avoid doing any kind of damage to these structures when entering the neck with a scalpel, as is standard procedure for conventional surgery. The need to make a significant wound means a longer healing time and a greater chance of losing some motor or nerve function.
Transoral surgery, which involves approaching the tumor through the oral cavity, allows surgeons to remove the offending tissues without damaging any healthy tissues or even leaving an incision. Lasers are perfect for this technique because the surgeon can send the beam through an endoscopic instrument specifically designed for throat procedures. This technique is frequently used to remove tumors in the esophagus that interfere with swallowing.
One note of caution: As effective as laser surgery is, it's exactly the same as conventional surgery in one critical respect -- its success depends on the skill and expertise of the team performing the operation. In addition to the medical and surgical skills required for delicate procedures, laser surgery also requires a thorough knowledge of how to handle this technology safely. Make sure that the surgical team you engage has the necessary training, certification, and experience to provide truly state-of-the-art laser surgery.
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