Robotic-Assisted Surgery for Lung Cancer Treatment Brings Faster Recovery, Less Pain

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The past efforts of many made it possible for Deborah Miller to have a healthier future. The Kentucky resident recently underwent robotic-assisted surgery to treat her early-stage lung cancer.

“It was a success because of the doctors and scientists researching the field of early-stage lung cancer treatment. And because funding to hospitals helps support the purchase of new technology. And the academic experience the doctors, nurses, and medical staff have. Each of them took care of me,” says Deborah.

In early May 2020, Deborah was receiving care for another health issue when a computed tomography (CT) scan revealed a shadowy area on her right lung. Her doctor ordered a second CT scan the following day and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan just ten days later to further uncover what was going on. Less than a month after the initial testing began, Dr. Valerie Williams, Associate Medical Director of Thoracic Surgery at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, used a da Vinci surgical robot to diagnose Deborah’s lung cancer and remove a portion of her right lung and 23 lymph nodes.

From diagnosis to treatment, everything went fast. St. Elizabeth and 
Dr. Williams takes a cancer diagnosis seriously. They wanted to make sure my needs were met as fast as possible – it was as fast as lightning,” she says.

The speed at which things happened also made the process easier, Deborah says. “It helped with my ‘scanxiety.’ When you get that Big C diagnosis or think you might have cancer, you want answers right away and you want the tumor out of your body immediately,” she says.

“When lung cancer is caught at an early stage, surgery can be curative,”  Dr. Williams says. “During surgery, I remove the section of the lung in which the cancer exists and all the draining lymph nodes on that side of the patient’s chest.  When surgery can be done in the beginning stages of lung cancer, the five-year survival rate can be as high as 90%.”

Deborah’s procedure, called a lobectomy, was done with robotic-assisted thoracic surgery. The advanced technique is less invasive than traditional open surgery and provides multiple benefits to both the patient and the surgeon.

Many facilities offer minimally-invasive video assisted thoracic surgery, but St. Elizabeth Healthcare is one of few health systems in the region that offers robotic-assisted thoracic surgery. Both types are less invasive than open surgery, but robotic-assisted surgery offers several advantages not possible with other methods.

In robotic-assisted surgery, the surgeon makes small incisions and passes a tiny camera and flexible surgical instruments into the patient’s chest. The robotic camera views the surgical area up close through a magnified system that shows the area in three dimensions and provides improved visibility. A robotic arm holds the surgical tools and moves with the surgeon’s commands. The da Vinci robot does not perform the surgery. It assists the surgeon, who remains in control at all times.

“Using the da Vinci robotic system allows me to perform intricate surgery using a minimally invasive approach. It provides significantly better visibility of the vital structures like the pulmonary arteries and allows me to make precise movements and dissection more easily,” Dr. Williams says.

“The flexibility of the robotic arm mimics the movement of a human wrist—without any tremor or unwanted movement. This feature improves dexterity, precision and control and allows me to operate more easily in tight spaces,” she adds.

Robotic-assisted thoracic surgery offers numerous benefits to the patient as well. The nationwide average hospital stay after lung cancer surgery is five days. At St. Elizabeth, patients who undergo robotic-assisted lobectomies typically go home two days earlier with an average post-surgery stay of about 2 ½ days.

Other benefits include:

  • Faster recovery time overall
  • Fewer complications during and after surgery
  • Less post-surgical pain
  • Reduced blood loss and muscle damage
  • Quicker return to daily activities

Deborah left the hospital three days after her surgery. Now, she says her recovery has been relatively uneventful. “There were times I had pain, but it was very manageable,” she explains.

Her prognosis is good. Regular follow-up care and monitoring for the next five years will help ensure Deborah’s continued good health. She credits  Dr. Williams’s expertise for her positive outcome.

Deborah says that Dr. Williams takes cancer very seriously. Her skill and compassion were the perfect combinations for what she needed. “She’s very encouraging – all around, she’s top-notch. I was so thankful, and I feel blessed and grateful that she was my doctor.”