Meet the robot
The procedure is called a robotic pelvic lymph node dissection, and it’s really impressive. At St George’s, they have a DaVinci robot and it’s one of 70 in NHS hospitals across the UK.
When pelvic node dissections for cancer surgery are done the old fashioned way, it’s very dramatic. The surgeon cuts really big holes, to be able to reach deep into your body. It can be a long and risky operation and the recovery can take months. The risks to infection are also huge in comparison to the robot, and I really didn’t want to get sepsis again.
I have two kids under five and they spend most of the day jumping on me, so the traditional route simply wasn’t feasible. So, the robot was the perfect choice to operate on me.
This was my second try at meeting the robot, but I’m not a quitter. (the first one was cancelled due to the septic episode, so I was admitted to St Georges in South London for emergency care instead)
My operation was the last, non emergency procedure at the hospital before everything locked down. In March 2020, the UK was in the peak of the COVID emergency, and all hospital staff were being drafted to work in the new NHS Nightingale hospitals.
I was probably lucky to get the operation at all, considering the level of national panic in March 2020. As I walked into the theatre block and sat down in the corridor, it felt like everyone had come down to see me!
Not your usual.
The preparations for a robotic operation are a bit different to the traditional situation in a NHS hospital. Typically, I meet a big team that just put people to sleep all day.
There are lots of registrars and student doctors, as St Georges is a huge teaching hospital. The anesthetics are done in a side room, and I never get to see the operating theatre.
Normally, I wake up in a different recovery room with loads of people.
The robot clearly has celebrity status. Here, I am knocked out under the robot and I felt like everyone I spoke to was a consultant. Lots of very senior people, and a very different vibe in the operating theatre. It was incredibly slick and professional.
In the usual anesthetics room they rub my arm and there’s some chit chat whilst the doctors hunt for a good vein. A cannula is then banged in my arm, a bit more chat, and it’s 1-2-3 good night.
After a traditional operation, I wake up somewhere else with a sore cock and a tube in my mouth.
Under the robot, the consultant anesthetist asked me questions and gave me lots of different drugs. It’s the little details that make big operations special for me.
The robot drills a hole and pumps you full of carbon dioxide. This gives it lots of room to operate, like a pop up tent. I was bloated for a couple of days afterwards, and it was uncomfortable the first night. It went away after a couple of days though.
The robot only targets the areas it needs to, and that’s a really impressive party trick. It cleans up behind itself and leaves everything neat and tidy, without the unnecessary cuts.
The robot drilled 6 holes right across my belly. It just took out the nodes it wanted, and stitched me back together again.
I went home after breakfast the next day. If this was a conventional operation, I would stay in hospital for at least a week and be effectively bed bound for months. The plasters from the robot were tiny, and I recovered from the op really quickly. I was back to normal in a couple of days.
I’ve seen the future, and I like it – robotic surgery is absolutely incredible. It’s something we should do a lot more of the UK.
Staging just gives an idea of how far the cancer has spread. After this operation, it was confirmed that I had stage 3 cancer, with grade 3 tumours.
What that really means, is that the cancer has spread to a couple of areas from the original tumour, and that it’s growing aggressively. Positive cancer cells had already been found in my right and left groin, so the lymph nodes in my pelvis needed to be removed and tested too.