Throat cancer: New surgical technique helps you recover faster

Dr. Rusha Patel

Robotic surgery is opening new doors in the treatment of head and neck cancer as some patients are able to avoid radiation and chemotherapy – if the disease is caught early. WVU Medicine otolaryngologist Rusha Patel, MD, discusses the benefits of robotic surgery for throat cancer.

What is head and neck cancer and who can get it?
The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat. Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma most commonly affects men in their 50s or 60s with a history of tobacco and/or excessive alcohol use, but cases of this type of cancer in younger people are increasing. We’ve been seeing younger patients who have throat cancer due to the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cancer at the tonsils and at the back of the tongue.

What is robotic surgery?
Transoral robotic surgery (TORS) is a type of minimally invasive surgery used to operate on areas of the throat with precise robotic instruments. This surgical approach uses a guided endoscope (a tubular instrument that can look deep into the body) to provide 3D images of tumors in the throat, base of the tongue, and tonsils. These tumors were previously challenging to reach with traditional tools.

When is robotic surgery used?
The most common use of TORS is for early cancers in the throat or voice box. TORS is especially helpful for operating on areas at the tonsils and back of the tongue where HPV-related cancers tend to occur. In some cases, TORS may be used to get biopsies from areas in the throat that are difficult to reach. Some patients have benign (noncancerous) growths in their throat, and TORS is useful for examining and operating on them.

What are the benefits?
With TORS, you can avoid external incisions, and your recovery period will be shorter compared to traditional open surgery. Our robotic system gives us access to hard-to-reach areas of the mouth and throat, and TORS makes it possible to operate on tumors that would otherwise need a much longer and riskier surgery. If head and neck cancer is caught early, TORS has the ability to treat cancers in these areas surgically, potentially limiting or avoiding radiation and chemotherapy.

Is robotic surgery safe?
TORS has been FDA approved since 2010, and it is used in many hospitals around the country with a high safety record. The surgeon is always in first command of the robotic system, much like how a pilot navigates an airplane. The robotic instruments are extensions of the surgeon’s own hands, and each motion is controlled by human action.

Who is a candidate?
The first step is to have an evaluation with a WVU Medicine head and neck surgeon. During your visit, we will go over your records, perform a complete exam, and see if you are a candidate for robotic surgery. Not everyone will be a candidate for TORS, but an evaluation is the best place to develop a treatment plan that works for you.

Make an appointment with a WVU Medicine provider today if you’re concerned about possible head and neck cancer symptoms: 855-WVU-CARE.