Moffitt Cancer Center Offers Robotic Surgery to Treat Pancreatic Cancer

Mar 1, 2013

Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa is the first in Florida to provide a fully Robotic Whipple surgery for patients with pancreatic cancer.  

The prognosis for the disease is one of the poorest among common forms of cancer.  The American Cancer Society predicts 45,220 people in the U.S. will receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2013 and that 38,460 will lose their battle this year.

The Moffitt Institute for Robotic Cancer Surgery’s fully robotic Whipple procedure is offering new hope for come pancreatic cancer patients.  The Whipple surgery is a complicated procedure that involves removing the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the bile duct, a small piece of intestines and sometimes part of the stomach. 

“So you can imagine after removing all of those structures then you have to reconstruct three different areas of the body, so you first have to reconnect the drainage of the pancreas, then you also have to reconnect the drainage of the bile system from the liver and then finally you have to reconnect the intestines continuity from the stomach to the other small intestine,” said Dr. Mokenge Malafa, chair of Moffitt’s Department of Gastrointestinal Oncology.  “So that’s why this is in general really viewed as the most complex operation we do in the abdomen.”

Traditionally, the surgery’s been performed through a large incision across the belly, but the fully robotic surgery allows surgeons like Malafa to insert instruments into the abdomen through much smaller incisions that can then be controlled from a computer console.  Special cameras in the instruments provide a 3-D high definition view inside the patient. 

“At the same time he’s (the surgeon) able to control those instruments that are especially designed to have increased dexterity,” said Malafa.  “Actually, more dexterity than the human hand can give.”

The procedure results in smaller surgical incisions, less blood loss and overall physical trauma which means faster recovery times with less pain.

Pinellas County resident Thomas Whitney was among the 16 patients who received the surgery in 2012 after a CT scan revealed a mass on his pancreas that turned out to be cancer.  Whitney recovered in the hospital for two weeks and followed up the procedure with chemotherapy, but describes his recovery positively. 

“I followed the regular regimen of exercise and diet and I still do,” said Whitney, “but the recovery has been phenomenal.  Everyone is amazed that I had the surgery and that I’m doing so well both from a medical and a personal interaction perspective.”

Early detection of pancreatic cancer remains a challenge and only about 20% of patients are candidates for the Whipple surgery.  “Those patients are unfortunately the only patients who have a reasonable chance of cure,” said Malafa.  “Most patients usually present too late because the tumor is either too big and involving very important structures of the body that can’t be removed or it has already spread.”

Malafa is also conducting a National Institute of Health funded clinical study into the use of a form of Vitamin E as a way to prevent pancreatic cancer.