Victoria woman cancer free thanks to surgery robots


WATCH: After a grim diagnosis of tongue cancer, a Victoria woman is thriving and cancer free thanks to an innovative robotic surgery. As Luisa Alvarez reports, it’s all thanks to the generosity of private donors that the procedure is even available. 

Aubrie Nelson is smiling and cancer free. She’s able to work, be a wife and an active mother to her two young boys. But just a few years ago her life didn’t feel so blissful.

“Just having a sip of water was like drinking glass chips,” said Nelson.

In November 2014, shortly after the birth of her second child, Nelson was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer.

She recalls feeling a mixture of disbelief and terror because being a nurse herself, she knew treatment could be invasive.

“Traditionally to get to the back of the throat you would actually have to split the jaw in order to get access to it,” said Dr. Eitan Prisman, ENT surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital.

“It would have been very difficult to communicate, very difficult to swallow all those kinds of things a lot of pain going forward,” said Nelson.

But it was either that or head and neck radiation and that could lead to other lifelong issues as well.

“It basically dries up all of your saliva glands so you have dental problems, risk of stroke, heart disease. Trefractory rays from the radiation can damage your brain and the vessels in your chest,” said Nelson.

Fortunately, an innovative robotic surgery was available at Vancouver General Hospital.

Dr. Prisman, the surgeon who performed the procedure, describes the innovative tool as “two robotic arms that allow us access to the back of the throat without having to do a much bigger incision.”

The robot is able to reach areas of the body a surgeon’s hands can’t and this option meant no disfigurement and virtually no side effects.

“I was up and walking that night. I was taking sips of fluid. It hurt a lot but I didn’t have any complications post-op and I was back home in two weeks with my kids,” said Nelson.

But it’s a piece of equipment that comes with a price tag of $4 million dollars, one a hospital can’t afford with their strict budgets.

“If we want to have this kind of care available to people then we do need to depend on donors for that,” said Nelson.

The money for this innovative tool that played such a huge role in Aubrie’s life came from both private donations to the hospital foundation and proceeds from hospital lotteries like the Millionaire Ocean View home lottery.

Money raised goes to funding innovative research, advancing specialized adult health care, and purchasing critical medical equipment for Vancouver General Hospital, UBC Hospital, GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Vancouver Community Health Services and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

To date, the Millionaire Lottery has raised over $50 million for VGH & UBC Hospital

And without their help, Aubrie’s story may have had a very different ending.

“I have this deep sense of gratitude because I know that this wouldn’t have been available to me without the donors,” said Nelson.

Luisa AlvarezLuisa Alvarez

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