Playing with her two sons, AJ and Ivan at the local park, Aubrie Nelson is smiling today. But a few years ago, there was time she worried her smiles would not be the same.
Shortly after she had her eldest son, AJ, Aubrie noticed persistent pain on her tongue. After many tests and many stressful nights, her doctors had a prognosis — it was salivary gland cancer.
Aubrie and her family were devastated. They were in disbelief. It simply did not make sense the healthy mother and wife had cancer.
“Why would I have cancer?” says Aubrie, an emergency department nurse at Victoria General Hospital. “I’m a young healthy woman. I don’t smoke, I’m active. I didn’t understand.”
“I remember sitting in that chair and feeling this kind of out-of-body experience,” she recalls. “Why would I have cancer? It just makes no sense.”
The future, at that point, was terrifying to Aubrie. As a nurse, she knew how disfiguring and painful the surgery for this type of cancer could be. Coming out of this major operation, she pictured herself looking like a different person to her kids and husband.
But there was hope. Aubrie and her husband, Aaron, heard about innovative robotic surgery being done at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).
At VGH, the head and neck surgeon, Dr Eitan Prisman, calmly explained the entire procedure to Aubrie and her husband. He would be sitting at a console controlling the robot, equipped with a 3D camera and surgical instruments.
“(The cancer) was not in the front of the mouth,” explains Dr Prisman. “It was way at the back of the tongue, which makes surgical options much more challenging.”
Aubrie says just before coming to VGH for the surgery, it was very difficult and emotional time because the future was unknown at that point.
“I said goodbye to my kids and we came over,” she says, crying. “It breaks my heart to remember my boys’ tear-stained faces as we said goodbye.”
Dr Larry Goldenberg, a urologic surgeon at VGH, says the robot can reach areas of the body where his hands are unable to.
“The robot has maneuverability with its wristed instruments that allow us to do intricate movements inside very tight parts of the body,” Dr Goldenberg says.
Because of the robot and the skilled VGH staff, Aubrie recovered quickly, without any disfigurement and is now cancer-free.
“I was up and walking that night,” she recalls. “I was not in any way disfigured. I could speak. I could swallow. I could communicate. It was quite miraculous – it was amazing. I am so, so grateful that’s how it turned out.”
Dr Prisman says that seeing his patients back on their feet with their families is very gratifying.
“We get the opportunity to not only cure the cancer, but can do it with the least amount of side effects,” he says. “To see our patients come back and return to normal function, those things are priceless.”
New innovations in technology, like the surgical robot, are critical to ensuring the best treatments for the most complex cancers facing British Columbians like Aubrie.