A Lancashire man has become the first person outside London to have his oesophagus removed by a robot in a revolutionary procedure.
Neil Jones, 56, who lives in Mellor, near Preston, has had the first robotic oesophagectomy at Royal Preston Hospital using the Da Vinci Xi robotic system which features five octopus-like arms at the end of which are fully jointed, tiny wristed instruments that can bend and rotate 360 degrees.
The robot provides a three-dimensional view and the “wristed” instruments allow much greater control and care of tissues making it easier for surgeons to access parts of the body that are difficult to reach.
It allows complex procedures to be undertaken using keyhole incisions rather than open surgery which reduces the risk of complications and makes for a speedier recovery.
The Rosemere Cancer Foundation launched a major £1.5m fundraising appeal with the support of the Lancashire Post last year and generous readers helped fund the robotic system costing £1.25m.
Neil, who is a company director with his own communications business and has a fiancee Claire Wilson, says his experience of the robot has been wonderful and he would recommend it to any suitable patients.
Neil’s ordeal began in September last year when he started experiencing problems eating.
Neil explains: “I suddenly found it had become an extreme struggle to eat. It just came from out of nowhere.
“Eating was like trying to pass a bowling bowl through a straw and food just got stuck half-way down and felt really uncomfortable before gradually working its way down.
“At first, I was just extremely careful with what I ate and went on a soft diet.
“However, this carried on for about three weeks and then it got worse and having a drink became a problem too.
“Even a cup of tea became uncomfortable to drink.”
Neil went to see his doctor and was referred to a specialist. He then underwent a procedure to have a camera put down his throat so medics could identify the problem.
To his horror, Neil was told doctors had found a seven cm tumour on his oesophagus which turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer.
Neil recalls: “I was absolutely shocked. I knew there was something wrong but I never thought it would be cancer.
“Ironically, I received the diagnosis on Friday the 13th of October.”
Further tests revealed the cancer was between Stage 2 and Stage 3 but closer to Stage 3 so was quite advanced.
Neil was sent to a specialist based at the Rosemere Cancer Centre at Royal Preston Hospital and he was started on chemotherapy followed by a mixture of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink the tumour.
Neil had lots of tests and scans to monitor the tumour and at the end of January this year, Neil was told a team of experts had decided the best course of action was for Neil to undergo an operation to remove his oesophagus to stop the cancer coming back.
Neil says: “Specialists told me that because of the position of the tumour, they had to go in through three access points - my stomach, my chest and my neck.
“They then told me they were very hopeful that I might be able to have the chest element of the procedure done robotically. The surgeon told me that if I was suitable, this would be their preferred way to do the surgery as it would speed up my recovery.
“I was thrilled. I knew the robot could carry out complex procedures with precision, but I was not aware it could carry out this procedure.”
Neil had the major surgery in April and the procedure took eight-and-a-half hours in total. Neil had been warned that with the standard way of doing the surgery, he would be in hospital for 11 to 14 days.
Neil says: “I was in intensive care for six days and the nursing and care I had in there was fantastic.
“I was then on a ward for another two days when the surgeon came to see me and told me he was very pleased with the way everything had gone and he was happy to discharge me.
“When I was expecting a far longer stay in hospital, it was incredible news and I was almost doing back flips with joy.”
Neil says that while he still has some discomfort around his stomach area where the standard procedure was done, he cannot even tell where he had the operation carried out by the robot.
Neil says: “I would not even know they have been in my chest which is the bit where the robotic surgery was done.
“It was just a small incision that was made and I am the first person outside London who has had this procedure done robotically.
“My recovery has been exemplary where the robot operated and my whole experience has been wonderful.
“I was told by the surgeon that this is the biggest operation the hospital carries out as they have to go through three cavities.
“I received a phone call a week later telling me my results were as good as they could be and that I am now basically cancer-free.
“My experience of the robot has been very positive.
“I would highly recommend that anyone who can have surgery done robotically does not hesitate in getting it done.”
About the robot and appeal
The Rosemere Cancer Foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary by launching a £1.5m fundraising appeal.
Funding the robotic system, costing £1.25m, was a major part of the appeal.
The robot system is controlled by a surgeon from a console and is suspended above patients on the operating table.
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals carried out its first robotic operation using the Da Vinci Xi robot in May last year and has conducted 248 robotic procedures during the last 12 months.
Over the past year, surgeons have travelled around Europe to learn the techniques and uses of the robot.
The team held robotic presentation evenings for GPs and the public earlier this year to increase awareness of the robot and promote the great things that they have achieved with the robotic surgery.
The robot can treat patients including those with bowel, gastrointestinal and gynaecological cancers.
Ioannis Peristerakis, consultant colorectal surgeon, says: “We are delighted to have had access to the most advanced surgical robot for the last 12 months.
“We are truly grateful to the Rosemere Cancer Foundation and its supporters for fundraising to make this type of cutting edge technology available to patients in Lancashire.”
The cancer centre at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals is just one of three in the country and the only one in the North West to be able to provide treatment for upper gastrointestinal cancer using the new robot.
What the surgeons say
Paul Turner, a member of the surgical team who carried out Neil’s pioneering operation, says: “Everything went very well, thanks in no small part to the robot.
“As surgeons, it is fantastic for us to be able to bring the very latest technological innovations into the operating theatre.
“It enables us to access traditionally difficult parts of the body, with small cuts and precision views.
“I am very grateful to everyone who supported Rosemere Cancer Foundation’s 20 Years Anniversary Appeal to bring the Da Vinci Xi to Preston.
“For myself and my team to be the first to undertake this procedure outside of London and for it to be so successful is just great.”