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Center for Thoracic Oncology


Photodynamic Therapy

The Center for Thoracic Oncology at Boston Medical Center is, first and foremost, here to serve you and your family. We are a team of dedicated specialists whose common goal is to treat your cancer and lead you on the path to recovery in as comfortable a way as possible. You will be treated in state-of-the-art facilities using a multidisciplinary approach. Our staff of compassionate diagnosticians, surgeons, physician assistant, nurse practitioners, and surgical nurses work together to provide you with the most advanced and effective medical treatment in New England—as well as unmatched patient care.


Photodynamic therapy (PDT), also called photoradiation therapy, phototherapy, and photochemotherapy, has existed for about 100 years and is a type of cancer treatment that uses light to kill abnormal cells. A special drug called a photosensitizer or photosensitizing agent is circulated through the bloodstream.

After the agent has been absorbed by the cancer, usually over a period of a few hours to a few days depending on the drug used (this is called the drug-to-light interval), the tumor is exposed to a special kind of light. The light and the agent create an active form of oxygen that destroys cancer cells. PDT is thought to potentially also destroy tumor-feeding blood vessels and stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells.

PDT is currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat or relieve the symptoms of esophageal cancer and the most common form of lung cancer, called non-small cell lung cancer. A handful of photosensitizers are approved, and we will determine the best one for you, depending on your specific diagnosis. PDT light sources range from laser and pulsed light to blue light and red light.

PDT is a promising treatment for certain types of tumors and because in some cases it can cure cancer. It is also:

  • Less invasive and quicker than surgery and other procedures
  • Leaves little to no scarring and has no long-term side effects
  • Can be targeted very precisely to cancerous cells
  • Can be repeated many times at the same site.

Treatment can make your eyes and skin especially sensitive to light for six weeks or so, however. We recommend avoiding direct sunlight and bright indoor light during this period. Because the basis of phototherapy is light, its treatment is limited to areas on or just below the skin. Newer, more sophisticated photosensitizing methods are in development.
Side effects are rare, but may include:

  • Burning, swelling, or pain on or below the skin's surface
  • Coughing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Painful breathing
  • Shortness of breath

How to Prepare

It is important to follow any instructions given to you by your physician, to prepare for surgery.

What to Expect

Each session of PDT is relatively simple. You can expect to arrive and receive either a photosensitizer drug then and wait a few minutes or hours until it has concentrated in the tumor, or you may visit us to have the drug administered and return days later for phototreatment. For phototreatment, you will lie on a comfortable examination table, and one of our anesthesiologists will give you local or general medicines to control pain and relax you. Then we will activate the appropriate type of light over the tumor in a strong, targeted beam. The procedure may take a few minutes or up to two hours.


Recovery from PDT is typically quite easy. You may experience some dryness or mild burning on the skin, but other effects are uncommon. Gentle skin products such as Vaseline can be helpful. Avoid the sun, as your sensitivity will be increased for a time following PDT; even a few minutes of sun exposure can sometimes cause discomfort. Please follow your doctor's instructions regarding medications and physical activity, but most likely you will be able to return to your normal activities right away.

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Boston Medical Center
Center for Thoracic Oncology
Moakley Building
830 Harrison Avenue, 3rd Floor
Boston, MA 02118

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Call: 617.638.5600
Fax: 617.638.7382

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88 East Newton Street,
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Boston, MA 02118
Call: 617.638.5600
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