New Zealand has a new weapon in the fight against oral cancers. A team in Auckland has carried out the country's first robotic surgery to remove a throat tumour.
The technique is widely used overseas, and is now available to oral cancer patients here, meaning less invasive treatment and faster recovery.
Traditional surgical options can require splitting the jaw or a large incision under the jawline, or damaging radiotherapy.
"The advantage of the robot is that we access it through the mouth, exorcise the cancer through the mouth, and then let the body heal from the inside out," says Dr Andrew Cho.
When operating on the throat, surgeons work close to vital structures. The robot allows better access and accuracy.
It's all filmed in 3D and displayed on a monitor, while the surgeons control the robotic arms at a console.
"There are certain things I can do with a robot that I can't do any other way," says Dr Francis Hall. "If it makes it easier for the surgeon, it's going to be less struggle and better results."
Although it's a New Zealand first, Dr Cho and Dr Hall have previously used the technology in the US, and were keen to make it available for Kiwi patients, like 59-year-old Half Moon Bay resident John.
John had had an ongoing, dull ache in his throat, but was otherwise fit and healthy.
"I was playing football and tennis, running 'round the block, it didn't affect my lifestyle at all, so it was very easy to ignore and be ignored."
He admits he was nervous about being operated on by a robot, but three days later he was out of hospital.
"I had no problems speaking right from the start, after surgery, which was a relief. Eating and drinking was difficult, but it quickly became easier."
He wants to now raise awareness and ensure others with concerns get checked.
Dr Cho says the diagnoses of oropharyngeal cancers has grown significantly in recent years along with public awareness of the disease, thanks in part to publicity from celebrity cases such as Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, as well as debate around government funding of the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls.
"As awareness of this cancer increases so has the number of men and women being diagnosed early," says Dr Cho.
"Oropharyngeal cancers, which can be caused by undiagnosed HPV, can be curable if caught early," says Dr Hall. "With the right treatment people can recover and go on to live normal healthy lives, which is what this new technique aims to achieve."
Around 250 Kiwis are diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer each year. Surgeons hope this new technology will give people a better chance at beating the disease.
Southern Cross Hospital North Harbour is the only hospital in New Zealand with credentialed surgeons and staff trained to operate the da Vinci robot for trans-oral robotic surgery (TORS).