Robotic surgery offers new hope for throat cancer patients


Bret Pierce is about to have surgery to remove throat cancer. In many hospitals, they'd tell him surgery wasn't possible.

"To work through that tunnel and get to the other end is so hard, to make sure you got it all becomes so challenging," said Dr. Ron Karni with Memorial Hermann. "Over 20 or 30 years we've relegated those patients to chemotherapy and radiation only."

But Bret has a 90 percent shot at a cure, because he can get the surgery.

He said, "With the robotic, they can take the tumor out and it improves the chances for cure."

Bret is one of the first patients to have throat cancer removed by a robot. The robot goes through the mouth to the back of the throat, where hands can't reach. Dr. Karni guides the arms that hold a camera and a laser from a video console.

Bret's wife Kathy Pierce said, "I think it's great, because they can't get their hands back in there, and with this they can see back down in there and the chances of getting most of it, if not all of it, are so much more."

Throat cancer is on the increase in the US, and more people may need this kind of surgery. Experts say recovery is much like that of a tonsillectomy, instead of traditional surgery where you can be left on a feeding tube for weeks or months, or even disfigured.

Dr. Karni said, "The cure rates have been between 60 and 70 percent. We're now seeing numbers above 90 percent."

The robot, designed for other surgeries, may have found a unique niche in saving people who have hard to reach throat cancer.

Bret's daughter Jodi Woods said, "We want him to be here as long as possible and if this can get it all, it's what we want."

They suggest those who have a lump in the neck, have it checked quickly. If you do have throat cancer, see if you're a candidate for a robotic surgery. Dr. Karni also suggests an HPV vaccination may help protect people against throat cancer.

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