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Lung cancer care: Robotic surgery offers fewer complications, faster recovery

| Healthy You

PeaceHealth thoracic surgeon Nicole Jackson uses minimally invasive robotic tools for lung cancer surgery.

Robotic-assisted surgical tools give lung cancer surgeons better ways to see and remove tumors in tight spaces.

If you think about it, the space in your chest is crowded. Heart, lungs, veins, arteries, muscles and connective tissue — all housed inside your ribcage.

That may not be much of a concern, until you need treatment for one of the organs in your chest.

But it’s something thoracic surgeons like Nicole Jackson, DO, think about all the time. She’s a specialist in surgeries for lung cancer and other conditions that affect the chest cavity (thorax).

About every 2 minutes in the United States, someone is diagnosed with lung cancer. Rates have been falling for decades, but it’s still the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and worldwide.

That’s often because people don’t recognize symptoms early on, when cancer is easier to treat.

With later diagnoses, people with lung cancer used to need open-chest surgery to remove the tumors. That meant big incisions (cuts) and spreading the ribs apart to reach the lungs.

In the last decade, however, treatment and technology have improved. Dr. Jackson and her peers now use minimally invasive techniques that let them more easily see inside patients’ chests and operate using tiny cuts and robotic tools. They’re able to find and remove cancer sooner, leading to better survival rates

Robotic-assisted surgery systems have names like daVinciIon and Monarch. They’re especially helpful when operating on the lungs since the tissue is constantly moving as you breathe. Early-stage tumors also tend to be small and located deep within the lungs.

“It gives me better access in tight spaces,” Dr. Jackson says of the daVinci system. “It’s a lot easier on patients, too.”

How it works

Robotic surgery doesn’t mean that your doctor lets a machine take over. During a robotic-assisted procedure, the surgeon uses a device with a camera to control robotic arms that hold miniature surgical tools.

The arms can bend and turn in more ways than human hands. And the camera offers a high-definition, 3D view of the operating area. This means the surgeon can see the tumor in more detail and has more control during surgery.

“With a robot and a camera, you can be right up close,” Dr. Jackson says. “It makes for a really nice, neat procedure. You’re not leaning in, spreading the ribs, looking deep into someone’s chest like you are with a traditional approach.”

Benefits of robotic-assisted lung surgery

When she discusses treatment with patients, Dr. Jackson explains that the benefits of robotic-assisted surgery include less pain, smaller scars and shorter hospital stays. There’s also a lower risk of infection, blood loss or complications.

Your surgeon is ultimately in the driver’s seat with the systems PeaceHealth uses, which also come with pre-programmed safety measures. “I reinforce that even while at the robotic console, I am only steps away,” Dr. Jackson says. “It’s always going to be a safe approach. I wouldn’t risk any kind of safety issue if I felt it was safer to do it the traditional way.”

PeaceHealth aims to get patients in for their procedure as soon as possible after diagnosis. Some people can go home as soon as a day after their surgery, while others may stay in the hospital for up to four days. At-home recovery generally takes a few weeks, compared to 6 weeks to 3 months for open surgery.

Is it right for you?

While robotic-assisted surgery is becoming more common, it’s not for everyone. It’s important to talk through all the treatments available for your specific stage and type of lung cancer. If your cancer is more advanced, you may not be a candidate. And if your cancer care team has concerns about how well you’ll tolerate a surgical procedure, they may suggest other options.

More to come

Over time, you’ll likely see more surgeons operating with an assist from robotic systems like Dr. Jackson does. This minimally invasive approach is increasingly used for treating other parts of the body that can be hard to reach, just like the lungs.

At PeaceHealth, you’ll find robotic-assisted procedures offered for reproductive health, heart care, and head and neck surgery. “This technology is being applied to more and more scenarios, with excellent results,” Dr. Jackson says. 

portrait of Nicole K. Jackson DO

Nicole K. Jackson DO

General Surgery
Cardiovascular Surgery
We welcomed Nicole Jackson, DO, to the PeaceHealth Medical Group Cardiothoracic Surgery team of providers in 2021. Dr. Jackson comes to PeaceHealth from Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, Washington. Dr. Jackson has medical interests in minimally invasive thoracic procedures (including video-assisted thoracoscopic and robotic-assisted surgery), aortic valve disorders and mediastinal masses. “I strive to practice with kindness, understanding and patience during a difficult period in someone’s life. My goal is to optimize outcomes and deliver the highest level of care," she said. Dr. Jackson is pleased to have landed in Bellingham. After all, she began her studies at Western Washington University, and most of her family is located in the Pacific Northwest or in Canada. Outside of the operating room, Dr. Jackson enjoys spending time with her family, hiking, snowboarding/skiing, traveling and soccer. She and her husband, a project manager, share two wonderful daughters, each with a very different personality.