Robotic surgery for cancer treatment: What patients should know
Kellie Bramlet Blackburn
For cancer patients who require surgery as part of their treatment, our doctors sometimes rely on robotic surgery to help remove hard to reach tumors, shorten surgery times or lessen side effects for patients. These tools first made their appearance in the late 1990s and are becoming more and more common in operating rooms.
Robotic surgery doesn’t mean that a robot is performing the operation. Instead, it refers to when surgeons direct the surgery using robotic tools. Robotic surgery systems use one or more robotic arms that surgeons control remotely and precisely using a nearby console. One robot arm has a laparoscope. Other arms hold tiny surgical instruments that can fit into an incision less than an inch long. The surgeon sits at a screen that provides 3-dimensional views of the tumor. A joystick similar to that for a video game precisely controls each robotic arm, which mimics the motions of the wrist and hand, providing dexterity.
Like many other surgical techniques, robotic surgery can offer some benefits for patients and surgeons alike, but it may not always be the best method. Here’s what patients should know about this treatment option.
Benefits of robotic surgery
The robotic device used in surgery are known for having greater dexterity and range of motion than humans have using traditional laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgery. This allows surgeons to operate on hard-to-reach parts of the body, and get closer looks at hard-to-see places. At MD Anderson, our doctors use robotic surgery for removing the prostate, part of the kidney, as well as removing tumors in the colon, lung and uterus.
Robotic devices are often used in minimally invasive surgeries. Just as the name implies, these surgeries rely on small incisions. This technique is usually associated with less pain, less blood loss, shorter hospital stays, and shorter recovery times.
Safety is top priority for robotic surgery
Sometimes, a surgery should be performed using traditional methods (also called “open surgery”), instead of robotically. Many factors play into what techniques are used during a surgery.
Some recent studies have shown that using robotic surgery might not be as safe or effective when it comes to removing tumors.
“These studies can be helpful, but they also might not hold true across different cancer types or even different hospitals,” Davis says.
He adds that the success of robotic surgery depends on several factors, including the type of cancer, where on the body the surgery will be performed, prior surgery the patient has had, and the surgeon’s preference and experience.
At MD Anderson, our surgeons have performed more than 7,000 robotic surgeries over the last 10 years. To ensure our patients receive the best robotic surgery possible, our surgeons receive extensive robotic surgery training and can’t perform these surgeries without training and approval to use robotic tools. MD Anderson established the MINTOS -- Minimally Invasive New Technology in Oncology Surgery program -- 11 years ago. And in 2017, MD Anderson implemented a robotics curriculum for both fellows and faculty so they can strengthen their experience and expertise.
Choose the right surgeon and ask questions
If you are thinking about undergoing a robotic surgery, take these steps first.
Pick the right surgeon. Make sure that your doctor is experienced and has extensive experience in the type of procedure you are going to have.
Ask questions about side effects you should expect. This will help you set realistic expectations following the surgery.
If you’re concerned about a robotic surgery, or surgery in general, share those concerns with your surgeon. Your doctor may be able to provide you with information specific to your cancer type or case that could calm your fears and even show why this surgery is your best choice.
The latest in cancer surgery changes fast and frequently, so make sure you have all the information you need to make the right decision for you.