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New Technology Allows Minimally-invasive Procedures for Lung Cancer

Bernita Littel loves to decorate her home for the holidays. Whether it's shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day or bunnies for Easter, it’s always easy to find her house.

This year, despite having lung cancer surgery on Jan. 12, she was able to decorate in plenty of time for Valentine's Day, thanks to a relatively new surgical procedure at UW Hospital and Clinics and the UW Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Because a small Stage I tumor in her lung was detected early, Littel, 81, was a candidate for a minimally invasive procedure called Video-Assisted Thoracoscopic Surgical (VATS) lobectomy. Typical lung cancer procedures can require a large incision and spreading of the ribs to access and remove the cancerous growth. A hospital stay can last up to a week, and recovery can take up to six weeks.
 
"The real pain is in spreading the ribs," says Tracey Weigel, MD, chief of thoracic surgery at UW Hospital and Clinics.

The VATS procedure entails four small incisions in the chest and side. Into these openings, the surgeon inserts a thoracoscope to view the tumor and other small instruments to remove it. Littel was in and out of the hospital with a definitive, curative procedure in four days with much less pain and discomfort than from traditional lung cancer surgery.
 
The VATS procedure was first pioneered in the mid-1990s. Once proven effective, it was adapted for lung cancer patients like Littel and has been used successfully over the past two years.

Littel and her husband raised five children and have lived in the same house on Madison's north side for 51 years. The couple met while working at Oscar Mayer; both retired in 1990 after a combined 90-plus years at the company.
 
Just over two years ago, Littel noticed pain in the upper part of her chest. Her physician, David Watts, MD, a geriatric specialist with UW Health, ordered an X-ray that showed a small spot on the lower lobe of her left lung. Watts then referred her to Jeff Grossman, MD, head of the UW Medical Foundation and a practicing pulmonary disease and critical care specialist, who monitored the growth.

When an X-ray late last summer indicated the tumor had grown, and a biopsy in November showed cancer. Grossman recommended Weigel and a VATS lobectomy.
 
"I put my life in his hands for him to decide and for her to do it," Littel says.

Today she has nothing but praise for Weigel. "She was just the greatest doctor," she says.

Littel reports that she is doing well with no complications. And she's forever grateful that because of the care, attention and follow-up she received at UW Health, the cancer was caught early.

"I guess I’m pretty fortunate."