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First Niagara County Resident Undergoes Robotic Cancer Surgery at Strong

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Lockport resident Thomas Opett is the first Niagara County man to beat prostate cancer with the aid of leading edge robotic surgery at Strong Memorial Hospital, the only medical center upstate to offer this technology.

Surgeons at Strong Memorial Hospital and its James P. Wilmot Cancer Center are the first in upstate New York to utilize high-tech robotic systems to ensure greater precision while performing surgery to remove cancerous prostates. Prostate cancer is the second most common form of cancer in men and affects about 220,000 U.S. men each year.  

Opett, 61, was diagnosed August and immediately began searching for a cure.

A family member recommended Opett consider a laparoscopic radical prostatectomy to remove the prostate gland, an organ about the size of a walnut and located between the bladder and urethra, which contributes fluids to semen.  The minimally invasive procedure offers faster recovery and less pain when compared to traditional open surgery.

“Beating the cancer and getting back to my normal routine as quickly as possible was what I was looking for.  And when I learned that Strong offers the procedure and that my surgeon would use the robotic system, it really appealed to me,” says Opett, an information technology project manager with Computer Task Group in Buffalo.

Strong recently added the daVinci Surgical System to allow urology and cardiac surgeons to offer the procedures laparoscopically, eliminating the need for large incisions. The leading-edge technology consists of a robotic arm that performs surgeries using movements that replicate a surgeon’s motions. The movements are controlled from across the room, by a surgeon using virtual images provided by laparoscopic cameras.

The technology provides surgeons a three-dimensional view inside the body as they remove the prostate, giving them the feel of an open surgery while performing a minimally invasive procedure.

“This system truly enhances the images and it is dramatically better.  The magnified 3-D view improves the accuracy and precision,” says Jean V. Joseph, M.D., urologic surgeon who performed the Opett’s procedure.

The benefits of the robotic technology have a significant impact on patients and their outcomes. Because the cases are done laparoscopically, dime-sized incisions are made that result in faster recovery time and a lower chance of infection or other complications.  The procedures themselves can be even more accurate than traditional surgery, with steadier “hands” at the surgical site being directed by a surgeon.

Opett underwent surgery on Sept. 16 and traveled back home two days later.  After three weeks of recovery – about half the time needed for traditional “open” surgery -- he returned to work.

“It feels good to be back to work and my regular routine,” Opett says.  “I’m grateful that I can put this behind me.”

While he was under anesthesia during the surgery, Opett has knows plenty about the robotic technology as he conducted significant research about the procedure.  He was also reassured by the many benefits the system affords the surgeons.

“It gives the appearance of being inside the patient,” says surgeon Edward Messing, M.D., chair of the Department of Urology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, which operates Strong and the Wilmot Cancer Center. “The 3-D view provides a depth perception that is missing in traditional laparoscopic surgery. This brings us as close to the surgical site as we can get.”

Strong surgeons have been using laparoscopic techniques for the past three years to repair damaged kidneys and remove cancerous tumors.  The new robotic system offers surgeons the flexibility and visuals of traditional “open” surgery with fewer complications for the patient.

Patients are positioned as they would be during laparoscopic surgery, with medical personnel surrounding them, yet a surgeon is located at a console a few feet away.

Supporting surgical team members prepare small incisions in the patient, install the correct instruments, and supervise the laparoscopic arms and tools being used.  The  instruments are designed with seven degrees of motion that mimic the dexterity of the human wrist. Each instrument has a specific surgical mission such as clamping, suturing and tissue manipulation.

Although the surgeon is not physically in contact with the patient, the daVinci control console allows the surgeon to actually see the surgical field in enhanced detail as a result of the three-dimensional image transmitted from the laparoscopic cameras. The surgeon manipulates the robotic “hands” in real-time using master controls, seeing minute, 3-D details inside the patient with the aid of the cameras located inside the patient.  The two robotic arms and one laparoscopic arm execute the surgeon’s commands.

The robotic system offers surgeons the flexibility and visuals of traditional “open” surgery with fewer complications for the patient. It also enhances the accuracy of delicate maneuvers such as repetitive stitching and suturing, says Messing.

“The robotic system enhances the surgeon’s precision. It’s almost like comparing a sewing machine to hand stitching,” Messing says.

The Wilmot Cancer Center is a leader in cancer care and research in Upstate New York. 


Facts about prostate cancer:

Prostate cancer can often be found early by testing the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in blood. Prostate cancer may also be found when a doctor does a digital rectal examination (DRE).

  • Prostate cancer is nearly always curable if detected at its earliest stages.
  • The American Cancer Society recommends men should begin annual prostate cancer screenings at age 50, unless they have relatives who have had prostate cancer or are African-American, and they could begin testing at 45.
  • Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer found in American men, other than skin cancer. There will be about 220,900 new cases of prostate cancer in the United States this year. About 28,900 men will die of this disease.
  • Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men, exceeded only by lung cancer. While one man in six will get prostate cancer during his lifetime, only one man in 32 will die of this disease.
  • African-American men are more likely to have prostate cancer and to die of the disease than are white or Asian men. The reasons for this are still not known.
  • The chance of having prostate cancer increases rapidly after age 50. More than 70 percent of all prostate cancers are diagnosed in men over the age of 65. It is still unclear why this increase with age occurs for prostate cancer.


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