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Many arms, one robot: the business end of the da Vinci system is seen in this media handout image from the manufacturer. (Courtesy of Intuitive Surgical, Inc.)

Facing Cancer, With A Robot Surgeon By My Side

May 16, 2013

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Eight days from now, I'll meet my robot surgeon for the first time. His name is da Vinci, and he'll be at work inside my body for about 4.5 hours. I can't wait.

On May 6, I was diagnosed with a rare form of endometrial cancer. The biopsy result came as a shock, because I have only a few mild symptoms, and they only began last month.

The aftershock was a big one too: the type I have, serous carcinoma, is rare, representing only 5 percent of all endometrial cancers; it can at times be quite badly behaved because it may (or may not) spread beyond the uterus even when caught early.

So I'm ready for da Vinci to do his thing — in this case a radical hysterectomy — so that I can get started on recovery.

Of course, I understand that the more scientifically accurate term for me to use is "robot-assisted surgery," because the da Vinci robot is only as proficient as the person controlling his movements.

A week ago today, I met that person, the human half of my oncological-surgery team. Dr. William Irvin of Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, Virginia, told me what I need to know, and what we need to do going forward, in a clear and unrushed manner, even while acknowledging that my world (and my family's) had just abruptly tilted.

I left his office feeling way better than I had felt when walking in, even after hearing some formidable details of what's ahead over the next few months, including chemotherapy.

But, with apologies to Dr. Irvin, it's da Vinci's name I've written on my calendar for May 24th.

Yes, I'm aware that there are questions and some outright skepticism about both the benefits and the cost of this robotic surgery. In fact, NPR covered this topic a few weeks ago. But I'm blogging here from a personal perspective, not reporting about a medical technique.

Given my particular health history and current diagnosis, and based on the reading I have done and my consultation with my oncologist, I believe that da Vinci is likely to bring some genuine benefits to my situation. Not only will the surgical incisions be small (minimally invasive), easing my recovery significantly, during the procedure, as this ABC News video shows, the robot's dexterous mobility and 3D visualization will offer heightened precision. Dr. Irvin has called da Vinci "a quantum leap" forward in treating gynecological malignancies, and that sounds good to me.

What da Vinci can't do — what no human or machine can do — is predict my long-term prognosis. A stage I cancer — the "best" of the possible stages because the cancer cells are highly localized — could very well be the explanation for my mild symptoms. But that's only a hope. We won't know the cancer's stage until after the surgical exploration and the report from the pathology lab.

As we cancer patients know too well, we can't will ourselves into a certain stage.

What we can do is take good care of our bodies and our spirits, find an excellent oncologist and follow his or her advice and instructions, and surround ourselves with positive people (and animals!). I'm doing each of those things.

I find myself thinking of how many others of you (or your loved ones) are also grappling with serious health challenges, and wanting to send a shout-out to each of you.

I am hyper-aware, too, that high-end medical resources like da Vinci are available in terribly unequal fashion around the world (and in this country as well). This is a sobering fact, one that I won't forget going forward.

Returning to my own circumstance, all things considered, as we say at NPR, I'm feeling steadier about the coming challenges than I would have anticipated.

I'm ready to get this done, and I know da Vinci is too.


Barbara's new book, How Animals Grieve, has just been published. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking daily on Twitter: @bjkingape

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