The changing face of cancer treatment
Rod Sinn’s voice is rich with undertones. He speaks with a slight accent that’s hard to place, his cadence is even and mature, and even if you can’t see him, you know that he is speaking with a smile. Cutting through the subtleties, one thing is blatantly obvious: Sinn is grateful to even have a voice at all.
Like many of his peers in their early fifties, Sinn is a career-oriented family man who enjoys sports and outdoor life. And like a growing number of his peers, he was shocked to discover that his life hung in the balance when he was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in 2011.
Oropharyngeal cancer, which impacts part of the throat, including the tonsils and the base of the tongue, is a rapidly increasing form of cancer in Ontario, where the number of cases is doubling every decade.
Sinn’s symptoms seemed innocent at first.
“I could see an inflamed tonsil,” says Sinn, who received several rounds of antibiotics from his family doctor for suspected tonsillitis, but the medications failed to bring him relief. “It was getting really nasty and was really bothering me. I thought, there has to be something more to it.”
When the nagging pain spread into his ear, Sinn sought a second opinion and received a surprising diagnosis – stage 2 cancer of the tonsils. However, due to additional inflammation that included lymph nodes, he would be treated as having stage 4 cancer.
Upon receiving the news, Sinn says his thoughts went on auto-pilot. “The mind goes into a mode of ‘Ok, how do we beat this?’ There was never an option of not beating it.”
Sinn was advised that standard treatment would include chemotherapy and radiation – and while the prognosis was hopeful – there were several risks. Possible side effects included damage to the voice box, loss of taste buds, malfunction of salivary glands and permanent damage to soft tissue and nerves.
“It wasn’t the quality of life that I was looking for when I was 50 years old,” says Sinn.
In his search to find another option, he came across an article mentioning a pioneering robotically assisted throat surgery that was performed for the first time in Canada just weeks prior, by LHSC’s head and neck surgeons, Dr. Anthony Nichols and Dr. Kevin Fung.
After visiting with Dr. Fung and Dr. Nichols, Sinn felt a confidence in the physicians. “It was clear to see that they do this not as a job but as a passion – both of them. It was a feeling that this was the right place.”
According to Dr. Fung, using minimally invasive surgery to remove oropharyngeal cancer offers the potential to avoid side effects of chemotherapy and radiation that impact quality of life. “The vast majority of radiation patients have issues swallowing because radiation causes damage to the throat,” he says, adding that some patients may also need a stomach tube.
In April 2011, Sinn began treatment at LHSC with Dr. Fung and Dr. Nichols, undergoing two surgeries: one to remove the tumour, followed by a second to remove several surrounding lymph nodes as a precaution and to ensure that the cancer hadn’t spread.
To perform the surgery, Dr. Fung and Dr. Nichols used the da Vinci surgical robot, which allows surgeons to reduce the complexity of surgery by providing a better view of the patient’s throat. The minimally invasive surgery is performed by navigating the robot through the patient’s mouth to reach the cancer, sparing the patient from excess scarring on the throat and neck. In Sinn’s case, it also eliminated the need to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.
“With robotically assisted surgery we can work from the inside out, rather than the outside in,” explains Dr. Fung.
A few weeks after his last surgery, Sinn received the call that he was cancer free – and other than slight scarring, Sinn’s quality of life remained intact.
“Words cannot express how I feel towards Kevin and Anthony or how grateful I am to have benefited from leading-edge robotic surgery at LHSC,” says Sinn. “I am blessed to enjoy the wonderful life I have today because Dr. Fung, Dr. Nichols and their medical team chose to offer such exceptional care to me. I am in great health and have an excellent quality of life. They accomplished what my family and I consider to have been a miracle.”
In the fall of 2013, Sinn became a public advocate for supporting LHSC, volunteering to be one of the faces of the Dream Lottery. But as for Sinn’s dream of the future?
“It’s funny,” he says, “because you look at it and you realize that you’re actually living your dream. Being here with your wife and your children surrounded by your friends – that is the dream."