YOUR HEALTH: Using robotic surgery for one of the deadliest forms of cancer

ATLANTA, Georgia – In 2011, Helen Byrne began having pain in her side.  An ultrasound showed kidney stones, and something else: three cysts in her pancreas.

"One (was) in the head of the pancreas," she explained.  "Being a nurse I understood the complexity of what that could mean."

Pancreatic cancer is often among the most deadly forms of the disease, striking 53,000 Americans a year.

The cysts were not cancerous at the time, so for four years, her doctor, Emory University's Winship Cancer Institute surgical oncologist Dr. David Kooby, kept a watchful eye on them.

"It will turn to cancer at some point," said Helen. "The goal is to get it out before it gets there."

BACKGROUND:  Pancreatic cancer starts in the tissue of a patient`s pancreas, which lies horizontally behind the lower part of the stomach, releasing enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is rarely detected in its early stages, and typically will spread to nearby organs rapidly. For patients with a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatic cysts, some screening might help in detecting a problem early on. One sign of pancreatic cancer is diabetes, especially when it occurs side by side with weight loss, pain in the abdomen that spreads to the back, or jaundice.  Symptoms may not occur until the advanced stages of the disease, but they may include; depression, blood clots, new-onset diabetes, fatigue, yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice,) loss of appetite or unintended weight loss, and pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back.  (Source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pancreatic-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20355421)

Helen was one of Dr. Kooby's first patients to undergo robotic surgery to remove pancreatic cysts.  With robotics, Dr. Kooby is able to control tiny instruments and a camera; inserted through keyhole incisions in the abdomen.

"I can use one instrument to retract an organ, two instruments to work with," explained Dr. Kooby.

"I can decide where the camera is going to be," he added.  "It has increased stability, and it has binocular vision, so I can actually see in three dimension."

With the robotic surgery, many patients report having less pain, a shorter hospital stay, and a faster recovery.

"As we get better at it, and the technology gets better, we may see patients get back to chemotherapy faster after surgery," explained Dr. Kooby.

"It didn't slow me down having surgery, hardly at all," added Helen.

Because it requires specialized training and is considered to be a complicated procedure, the robotic surgery for pancreatic cancer is only performed at a handful of major U.S. medical centers.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.