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YOUR HEALTH: Using robots to treat the toughest of cancers

Robots are changing the chances to survive pancreatic cancer

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. — With pancreatic cancer, by the time you know you have it, it is usually too late. 

Each year, 60,000 people will be told they have it and almost 50,000 will die from it. 

It has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers.

For 75-year-old Don Somerville, it's also the focus of his latest battle.

Don's lived a long, full life; a soldier, a singer, and a lawyer.

But he can also claim to be a cancer survivor.

"Whenever you tell people pancreatic cancer people go, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' You already know there are basically, you know, writing you off right as you sit there."

But surgeon Ahmad Abou Abbass is not going to let that happen. 

He used a new state of the art robotic Whipple procedure to laparoscopically remove Don's cancer.

"It's like driving a machine and I sit on the machine and actually every move I do, it translates into a movement in the robot," said Dr. Abou Abbas, a Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Surgeon. 

The Whipple procedure creates tiny incisions in the abdomen, about the size of a pencil head, to reach the pancreas.

"For cancers in the head of the pancreas, it entails removing the head of the pancreas with all the other organs and doing all that reconstruction," Dr. Abou Abbass stressed.

The Whipple procedure is offered at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Iowa Clinic,and the Mayo Clinic.

The Whipple uses a 3-D camera that magnifies the area nine times. 

Instead of recovery taking up to ten days in the hospital, patients experience less pain and many go home in four days.

"They are up and walking, next day," said Dr. Abou Abbass.

For Don, after surgery, followed by chemo, he now has more life to live and more memories to make.

"I am so happy with that outcome."

Details on the Whipple Procedure

The Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy, is a surgery used to remove tumors in the pancreas. 

The Whipple removes and reconstructs a large part of the gastrointestinal tract and is considered a difficult and complex operation. 

If a tumor is in the head of the pancreas and has not spread to other areas of the body, the Whipple procedure may be attempted. In a standard Whipple procedure, the surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the duodenum, a portion of the stomach and surrounding lymph nodes, and then reconnects the remaining pancreas and digestive organs. 

In some cases, patients may undergo a modified version of the Whipple procedure, which keeps the entire stomach and the stomach valve called the pylorus.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.