Medical Minute 1-14: Removing Tumors Without Major Scarring

By: Vanessa Welch Email
By: Vanessa Welch Email

For 15-year-old Gabby Gutierrez, the symptoms started after a soccer game last April -- a sore throat with a scary kick.

"It was like trying to swallow while having a softball and cotton balls all up in your throat, it was really difficult to even try to talk, try to drink water, try to turn my neck," said Gutierrez.

Weeks later, C-T scans revealed something Gabby never imagined lymphangioma -- a tumor the size of two golf balls growing in her throat, blocking her airway.

"Where the purple is outlined is where the tumor was," said Adam Zanation, M.D., Director of UNC Head and Neck Robotic Surgery Program, UNC Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery.
"So if you see this little black spots? Black is air on this scan and that's what she was trying to breathe through."

Traditionally removing a tumor this big would mean major open surgery.

"That means making an incision through the lip, down the neck, opening the jaw," said Dr. Zanation.

"Immediately I thought 'oh no, I'm going to be ugly!' That's the only thing that went through my mind," said Gutierrez.

But surgeons at the University of North Carolina used a new, less invasive technique--transoral robotic surgery-- to go through Gabby's mouth to get the tumor out.

"We actually introduce this robot into the mouth and dissect this tumor out with the robot. As far as we know, this is the first pediatric case in the country."

Successful surgery without a single incision. It saved Gabby's face and her life.

"I always imagine what could have happened and I'm grateful for what did happen."

Now, just five weeks after her surgery, this young woman is feeling pretty - confident - and very, very lucky.

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