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Phototherapy, a.k.a. light therapy, is a method of treatment in which visible and invisible light are used as healing agent. There are several forms of phototherapy; although some are backed by solid scientific evidence many forms of this therapy are not. If you choose to see a phototherapist as part of your treatment plan make sure his or her methods are scientifically based.


Light is a form of electromagnetic energy. Electromagnetic energy is energy which can be reflected by, or emitted from, objects by way of electrical or magnetic waves through space. There is a wide spectrum of different types of electromagnetic energy; visible light forms only a small portion of this spectrum. Other forms of electromagnetic energy are not visible to the human eye; these include radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet light, and infrared light (which is heat). These are often referred to as invisible light.



The word “Laser” is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” As children many of us have made crude visible-light lasers by using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight into a hot beam to melt ice or burn holes into leaves; that is the basic gist of how visible-light lasers work. A laser is a device which concentrates electromagnetic energy into a highly intense, narrow beam. There are lasers for visible light as well as invisible light, your oncologist will decide which one, if needed, will be of best use for your treatment.



Light has been scientifically proven to be useful in treating numerous health conditions such as newborn jaundice,1 dental procedures,2 and more. When it comes specifically to cancer, though, what does science say regarding phototherapy?

Science shows that light can affect physical, mental, and emotional conditions. This is very important for cancer patients because cancer is notorious for causing depression, anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue, among other issues. Because these types of issues are known to negatively affect physical health (causing high blood pressure, headaches, increase of stress hormones, disruption of circadian rhythm, etc.) it is essential to address these issues in order to strengthen a cancer patient's health. For example:


Photo-dynamic therapy uses a combination of specialized medications and light to treat certain types of cancer. In short, the medications are made with substances which need certain types of light to activate them (a.k.a. “turn them on”) in order to destroy cancer cells. This kind of therapy is also known as photo-chemotherapy and/or photo-radiation. Depending upon the area being treated, this type of therapy may require the medication to be inserted into a vein or applied to the skin. Time is allowed for the cancer cells to absorb the medication, after which light is applied to activate the medication once the cancer cells have accepted it. The timing between administration of the medication and light exposure will vary depending upon the medication used; this time is often referred to as “drug to light interval”. Depending upon the medication used, this may take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. When the light is applied it causes the medication to chemically react with the oxygen around it, creating a new substance which kills the cancer cells. This type of therapy has no long term side effects, is not as invasive as surgery, and can usually be done on an outpatient basis. The main limitation is that it is only effective in body locations where light can reach the target area. This usually includes the skin, nails, and the surface of inner organs which can have light devices inserted such as the esophagus, rectum, etc. This is not a commonly used cancer treatment at this time and is thus available only through certain treatment centers.

PRECAUTIONS: Although light therapy is more gentle than many other treatments there are some precautions to consider:

Always consult with your medical professionals before using any form of light therapy, and always used formally trained professionals to administer your phototherapy.



Photo-immunotherapy uses the combination of light and antibodies to kill specific kinds of cancer tumors. In this type of therapy, light-absorbing chemicals are attached to the antibodies which are then injected into the patient. Time is given for the antibodies to reach and attach themselves to the targeted tumor. Once the antibodies are attached, the light-absorbing chemicals they carry are activated by applying near-infrared light (a form of invisible light) to the site, causing fatal damage to the tumor cells. This type of therapy is not yet widely available as researchers are still testing it through clinical trials, however the results look very promising for cancer patients.

1Fundamentals of Phototherapy for Neonatal Jaundice (Stowkowski, 2006); Clinical Usefulness of High Intensity Green Light Phototherapy in the Treatment of Neonatal Jaundice (Amato, 1991)
2The Physics of Light Curing and its Clinical Implications, Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, July/August 2011, Volume 32, Issue 6 (Howard E. Strassler, DMD)
3The Effects of Red and Blue Lights On Circadian Variations in Cortisol, Alpha Amylase, and Melatonin (Figueiro, 2010)
4Green Light Affects Circadian Rhythm” Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, (May 2010)
5Exposure to White Light LEDs Appears to Suppress Body's Production of Melatonin More Than Certain Other Lights, Research Suggests (University of Haifa, September 12, 2011)
6A “ lux” is a meaurement of how brightly a surface is illuminated.
7The circadian rhythm is your body's natural 24-hour clock which dictates the timing of sleep, wakefulness, and internal processes such as release or hormones, enzymes, etc.
8Efficacy of Bright Light Treatment, Fluoxetine, and the Combination in Patients with Nonseasonal Major Depressive Disorder (Lam, 2016)
9Systematic Light Exposure in the Treatment of Cancer-related Fatigue: A Preliminary Study (Redd, 2014)