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Seattle Cancer Care alliance & VATS procedure


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New Treatment: V.A.T.S.

VATS: Less Pain, Faster Recovery After Chest Surgery

Doctors cut extensively through muscle and cut through or spread apart the rib cage in traditional open-chest surgery, or thoracotomy. Now patients at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) have a less-invasive alternative if they need lung tissue removed: video-assisted thoracic surgery. VATS lung resections are available at only about 30 centers in the country, including the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC), an SCCA parent organization.

Small incisions are easier on patients

VATS allows doctors to perform chest surgery through two to four small incisions, most less than an inch long. A camera inserted through one of the incisions guides their work. Images from the camera show on a video monitor. They use the other small incisions to insert their surgical instruments.

In a traditional thoractomy, the surgeon makes a longer incision – usually about 6 to 10 inches long – often from the patient’s back around to her side. Then, in order to see and reach the organs that need repair, removal or other work, the surgeon must move the ribs out of the way by cutting or spreading them. This method, while sometimes necessary, is more traumatic to the body. So recovery can be painful and take many weeks.

People who undergo VATS spend less time in the hospital, need less pain medication, have less scarring and recover much faster than those who undergo open-chest surgery.

“I would find somebody who could do this for me if I needed [thoracic surgery] done,” says Dr. Michael Mulligan about VATS. “I do things for my patients that I would want someone to do for me. We’re in it together.

“I am heavily involved in athletics and hope to begin competing in waterskiing very soon. The thought of having a lot of my back and chest-wall musculature divided would be devastating. I think VATS has a lot to offer, not only for athletes but for all appropriate candidates who want to optimize their postoperative function.”

Mulligan is the only board-certified thoracic surgeon in Seattle who routinely performs anatomic lung resections using VATS. He has also performed more than 200 lung transplants and hundreds of other thoracic surgeries at the University of Washington. Read more about Mulligan.

The main candidates for VATS among people who have cancer are those in the early stages of their disease, says Mulligan. Generally it’s not suitable for people receiving neoadjuvant chemotherapy (given before surgery) or those with bulky areas of disease in the thorax, he explains. Also, VATS may not be appropriate for people whose surgery will exceed a certain threshold of complexity because of the location or other characteristics of their cancer.

Home and back to life within days

While survival rates are about the same for open-chest surgery and for VATS, other measures of success dramatically favor VATS, Mulligan explains.

“Our average time to discharge [after VATS] is just over two days,” says Mulligan. Many people are back to their usual activities in about one week. In contrast, after open-chest surgery, most patients spend one week in the hospital and four to six weeks recovering.

Studies so far show that people who undergo VATS have less post-operative pain than those who have open-chest surgery. They have better shoulder function and better lung function when the same amount of lung tissue is removed. Also tests soon after surgery show they can walk further in six minutes than patients who have open surgery.

Though VATS takes longer to perform than open-chest surgery, patients fair so much better with VATS that it’s been refreshing, says Mulligan. Their response has only reinforced his passion for his work.

“It has been great to hear these patients’ reports about how well they are doing,” says Mulligan. “It’s been a real shot in the arm.”

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