Minimally-invasive surgery to remove huge tumor

January 4, 2012 2:43:21 PM PST
Imagine being told you have a 5-pound tumor growing inside you. Now imagine getting that news when you're 13. That's exactly what happened to one girl, but a minimally invasive option usually reserved for adults helped the talented teen.

Anna Cole can work the keys of a piano, light up the strings of a violin and perform in unison with her siblings. For her, music is a way of life. It's also the reason Anna's mom knew something was wrong with her daughter.

"I'm a musician, and I notice posture, and I noticed that she had a little curvature, a little hump on her right side," Chee-hwa Cole said.

Anna's dad, a cardiologist, didn't think much of it.

"Even though I'm a doctor, I'm not a doctor to my kids," Chris Cole said. "I'm a dad to my kids."

Still, he suggested she see the pediatrician. Scans showed Anna had a 5-pound tumor the size of a volleyball growing in her chest.

"We said, 'it's a tumor, and her first question was, 'Am I going to die?'" Chee-hwa said.

"I just started crying because I was kind of scared," Anna said.

Dr. Steven Rothenberg, who is chief of pediatric surgery and clinical professor of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said removing tumors with a minimally-invasive approach is the best way, but Anna's tumor was different.

"The size of it made most physicians feel that there was no way they could do it using these small incisions," Dr. Rothenberg, said.

The standard procedure involves making a 14-inch incision across the chest and a long, painful recovery. Instead, Dr. Rothenberg tried a minimally invasive technique. Using tiny instruments, he extracted Anna's tumor from her chest, dodging blood vessels, her lung and spine.

"I had to keep trying to circle the tumor to get all the aspects," Dr. Rothenberg said.

Then, he chopped up the tumor and used a bag to pull it out piece by piece. The entire surgery was performed through four tiny incisions. Anna's tumor was not cancerous, and she felt well enough to play at a piano recital just a week after her surgery.

"If we'd done an open thoracotomy, she wouldn't be able to do this for months," Dr. Rothenberg said.

"I had been looking forward to it, and I didn't want to miss it just because of my surgery," Anna said.

A dedicated musician who won't let anything interfere with a performance.

In addition to offering shorter recovery and less pain, minimally-invasive approaches also lower the risk of scarring and chest deformities like scoliosis. Dr. Rothenberg says he can always fall back on an open, traditional surgery if he needs to when performing a minimally-invasive procedure.

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