March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, when we emphasize the importance of colon cancer screenings and treatment. After all, colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. In fact, this silent killer affects about one in every 20 Americans and will cause more than 49,000 deaths this year alone.
Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is a malignant tumor arising from the inner wall of the large intestine, or colon, the lower part of the digestive system. Rectal cancer is a cancer of the last several inches of the colon. Together, they are often referred to as colorectal cancers.
Some risk factors for colorectal cancer include a family history, colon polyps and chronic ulcerative colitis. Polyps are the primary way colon cancer develops, so removal of these polyps and regular screening for them is key. Typically, they produce few, if any, symptoms.
In many cases, colon cancer is treatable, and potentially curable especially when discovered in the early stages. Robotic surgery is playing an increasing role in the delivery of care to those who have colon cancer and advanced colon polyps. The new da Vinci Xi robotic system is used for a variety of surgical procedures, but has proved to be particularly safe and effective for colon cancer patients.
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The da Vinci Surgical System first debuted 10 years ago and largely revolutionized minimally-invasive surgeries. Using a console, surgeons control in real-time robotic arms being used inside the patient, a technique which offers precision and vision far beyond what conventional laparoscopic and open techniques can currently achieve.
The new robot is beneficial to patients and surgeons because it is minimally invasive, creates small scars, minimal blood loss, less pain, low risk of infection and shorter recovery times.
During colorectal surgery, the surgeon typically removes at least a foot of colon, along with the accompanying lymph nodes. The robot allows that removal process to go smoothly and quickly. Traditional colorectal surgery typically would have required a large open incision from the ribs to the belly button. Now, the same surgery can be performed using only tiny incisions with the da Vinci Xi.
The high-definition vision system allows the surgeon to view a highly magnified, high-resolution 3D image of the surgical site. Surgeons also can use a glowing dye to view blood flow for assessment of tissue perfusion or cancer extent.
Colorectal cancer patients should talk to their doctor about the possibility of undergoing surgery using this new method. For men and women older than 50, it’s extremely important to get regularly screened for for colorectal cancer, altogether eliminating the need for this treatment. Regular screenings include high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing (FOBT), sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy. People at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer should begin screening at a younger age.
Dr. Jason Harris is in General Surgery, Bluegrass Surgical Group, KentuckyOne Health.