Tonsil Cancer Removed by Robotic Procedure

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

She thought she had her tonsils removed years ago, but when she was nagged by a pesky sore throat Kimberly Cochran followed up with her doctor. First she was prescribed an antibiotic. That was August of 2020.

“It felt better but it didn’t go away,” said Cochran, 60, of Frankfurt. By October she was seeking the advice of an Ears, Nose and Throat specialist. To her surprise, a sore was discovered on her tonsils and she was referred to an oncologist. The initial treatment recommendation included radiation and chemotherapy.

“I weigh 80 some pounds and I didn’t think my body could survive chemotherapy,” said Cochran. That’s when she turned to IU Health in search of other options. She was connected with Dr. Michael Moore who specializes in Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month – a time to bring attention to screenings and education. The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates more than 54,000 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed this year. Of that number, 43 percent aren’t expected to survive longer than five years. The primary reason: Those cancers are discovered late in their development.

For Cochran, early intervention resulted in robotic surgery Jan. 15, 2021 to remove affected lymph nodes.

“The use of TransOral Robotic Surgery was approved by the FDA in 2009 and we started doing it here at IU Health not long after that,” said Dr. Moore. “It is used to remove certain tumors from the back of the throat in a way that is much less invasive than traditional open approaches and it also may allow for patients to receive lower dose radiation or possibly even avoid it altogether. The focus is to reduce long-term side effects such as dry mouth and throat, taste disturbance and difficulty swallowing,” he said.

In Cochran’s case, the surgery was a good option because she wanted to avoid radiation and chemotherapy. “While the initial healing period is uncomfortable and swallowing is difficult right after surgery, these symptoms tend to improve and long-term effects are excellent,” said Dr. Moore.

A former smoker, Cochran called 1-800-Quit-Now when she first learned of the cancer. She received free coaching, educational materials, resources, and patches to help her stop smoking. Smoking and heavy drinking – especially by those older than 50, are among the risk factors of developing oral cancer.

The Oral Cancer Foundation joins a number of dental health organizations in the “Check Your Mouth” initiative. Signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Sores or ulcers that may last more than 14 days
  • Red or black discoloration of the mouth
  • Any abnormalities that bleed
  • Lumps or hard spots on the tongue
  • Sores under the dentures
  • Lumps in the neck that last at least two weeks

“I would tell people, even if you have sore throats from sinuses or allergies, keep an eye on things,” said Cochran, the mother of two and grandmother to two. “I didn’t think it was cancer but you can’t ignore things. You have to advocate for yourself and go to a doctor.”