Photo Treatment for Esophageal Cancer

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What is Photo Treatment?

Photo treatment for esophageal cancer is one of the treatment options for this type of cancer, albeit a relatively new one. When following photo treatment, a light sensitive drug (or photosensitizing agent) is injected in the bloodstream of the patient. This drug travels through the body and will be absorbed by the cells it encounters. After the administration of the drug, a fiber optic cable is passed down an endoscope into the esophagus. Then, low powered lasers are used to illuminate the area affected by the cancer. This light subsequently activates the drug that has been absorbed by the cells and this drug will then effectively kill the illuminated cells.

Duration and Sequence of Events

The drug is usually injected two to four days before the lasers are used, giving it time to spread through the body and be absorbed by the cancer cells. After this time, the patient returns to the hospital and he or she will get a sedative to numb the back of the throat. The end of the endoscope will be inserted in the mouth and the patient will be asked to swallow it.

The treatment itself usually lasts only a few minutes. After it is done, the patient can return home and will get some painkillers for a sore throat.


Photo treatment (also known as PDT, PhotoDynamic Treatment), has one great advantage. It does not damage healthy tissues. Due to the ability to focus on the affected area with the lasers, the drug will only be activated here, not bothering the healthy tissues, even though the light sensitive drug can also be found there.

Side Effects

There are some side effects of photo treatment for esophageal cancer, but these are usually quite mild and short-term. The most pronounced (and perhaps annoying) side effect is the light sensitivity that arises as a result of the treatment. The most common side effects are:

  • Light sensitivity until approximately six weeks after the treatment, which may result in a blistered, red or swollen skin when exposed to light.
  • Feeling sick.
  • A metallic taste in the mouth.
  • A sore throat, especially when swallowing.

With the exception of the light sensitivity, the side effects will generally last only a few days and are not too difficult to handle. The light sensitivity, however, may last up to six weeks. As it travels throughout the entire body, all of the skin will become light sensitive. In order to facilitate dealing with this, there are a few helpful rules that can be applied:

  • Avoid bright sun- and indoor light.
  • If you have to go outside, cover yourself up and wear sunglasses.
  • When indoors, close the curtains when the sun is at its brightest.
  • If you have to go outdoors, try to do it in the early morning or after the sun has gone down.