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We report on the use of a radially polarized beam for photothermal therapy of cancer cells labeled with gold nanorods. Due to a three-dimensionally distributed electromagnetic field in the focal volume, the radially polarized beam is proven to be a highly efficient laser mode to excite gold nanorods randomly oriented in cancer cells. As a result, the energy fluence for effective cancer cell damage is reduced to one fifth of that required for a linearly polarized beam, which is only 9.3% of the medical safety level.