A robotic surgery system can enhance the abilities of a surgical team, allowing them to perform an aggressive surgery more safely. At this time, only specialized cancer centers have the equipment and expertise necessary to perform robotic surgery for mesothelioma.
For some pleural mesothelioma patients, an aggressive tumor-removing surgery such as an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) offers the best chance of extending survival. During an EPP, surgeons remove the diseased lung, as well as parts of the tough, fibrous protective lining surrounding the heart and chest, nearby lymph nodes and part of the diaphragm if necessary.
However, EPP procedures carry great risks. The invasive procedure involves a difficult recovery period, and surgeons often discover patients are poor candidates for surgery only after making a major incision to open the chest.
In robotic surgery, a surgeon uses remote-control surgical tools and sees inside the patient’s body through a 3D camera. The tools and camera are mounted on little robotic arms that can fit through small incisions in the patient’s chest.
This allows the surgeon to evaluate the extent of tumor growth and minimize bleeding before making a major incision to complete the surgery. This way, patients who cannot benefit from surgery are spared an extensive procedure, and patients who can benefit have an easier recovery.
Innovative robots such as the da Vinci Surgery System are designed to minimize the harmful side effects of surgery. Robotic surgery is an evolved form of video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS).
In the VATS technique, a surgeon uses long, thin tools and a camera on a probe so they can see what they are doing without completely opening the chest. Many specialists rely on VATS to perform biopsy procedures as part of a mesothelioma diagnosis.
VATS is not ideal for more complex procedures, however, because the 2D camera eliminates the surgeon’s depth perception, and the tools are counterintuitive to use.
A robotic surgery system solves these problems by giving the surgeon a magnified 3D view and translating the surgeon’s movements into precise movements of tiny robotic hands. The surgeon can adjust the sensitivity of the controls as needed, and the system automatically filters out any tremor in the surgeon’s fingers.
The robotic systems used by mesothelioma specialists do not involve any kind of artificial intelligence — they are merely superior tools for human surgeons to use. The surgeon’s view is also projected onto screens in the operating room so the entire surgical team can collaborate during surgery.
Surgeons have used robotic tools for chest cancer procedures since 2006. In 2013, the first robotically assisted EPP was conducted using the da Vinci Surgical System.
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Robotic systems can significantly improve surgery for pleural mesothelioma.
Sometimes imaging scans do not reveal the full extent of cancer spread, which can lead to a patient undergoing an aggressive procedure that does more harm than good. Remote-control robotic tools allow a surgeon to thoroughly look around inside the patient’s body before making the final decision to go ahead with the more invasive portion of the procedure.
With a high-definition 3D camera and tiny, computer-stabilized robotic tools, a surgeon can locate and remove cancer growth much more accurately than using only the human eye and fingers.
Blood loss is a major concern in conventional EPP procedures, because it can lead to surgical complications and a more difficult recovery. With robotic tools, however, a surgeon can stop bleeding quicker and more efficiently, vastly reducing the amount of blood loss. Patients undergoing robotic surgery typically only need to spend days recovering in a hospital bed, compared to weeks with traditional surgery.
Robotic surgery systems require extensive training to operate effectively. Some experienced surgeons have no interest in learning to use these new tools, and other surgeons are skeptical that robotic systems provide significantly greater benefits than VATS techniques.
The high cost of the technology is a barrier for many hospitals and cancer centers. However, proponents believe if patients spend fewer days recovering in a hospital bed, a surgical practice can realize great savings in the long run.
In any case, until the technology becomes more widespread, patients will have to travel to one of a handful of advanced cancer centers around the country to find a surgeon with experience treating mesothelioma through robotic surgery.
Since surgeons began exploring the use of robotic systems for chest cancer procedures, several accomplished specialists have begun to advocate for the technology.
Daniel King joined Asbestos.com in 2017. He comes from a military family and attended high school on a military base. He feels a close connection to veterans, military families and the many hardships they face. As an investigative writer with interests in mesothelioma research and environmental issues, he seeks to educate others about the dangers of asbestos exposure to protect them from the deadly carcinogen linked to asbestos-related conditions. Daniel also holds several certificates in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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