Virtua Expands Access to Advanced Lung-Cancer Care
Robotic Technology – Providing More Accurate Diagnosis – Now at Two Virtua Hospitals
March 29, 2023 - Cinnaminson resident Patricia Vigneau, an active 67-year-old, never suspected she had a potentially deadly illness. But because she’s a former smoker, her doctor suggested a lung screening – even though Vigneau kicked the habit years ago.
“It was very shocking” when tests – recommended by pulmonologist Jewelle Sutherland, MD – revealed a pea-sized tumor in her right lung last October. “After many years [of not smoking], I figured everything was fine,” recalled Vigneau (pronounced vin-NEW).
The good news: Doctors at Virtua Health caught and treated Vigneau’s cancer early – using new, leading-edge technology – and she is now cancer-free.
“In a matter of four months and five days, I had cancer and then I didn’t,” said the grateful wife and mother.
A key to Vigneau’s successful outcome: an advanced procedure for diagnosing small, hard-to-reach lung cancers, using minimally invasive, robotic technology.
Called robotic-assisted bronchoscopy, the technique enables doctors to reach 80% to 90% of suspicious lung nodules – versus just 60% with traditional, non-robotic bronchoscopy.
The technology is also better at accurately diagnosing cancer, yielding a correct diagnosis in 90% of malignant tumors, according to Mark Weir, MD, who performed Vigneau’s robotic bronchoscopy.
“By comparison, non-robotic bronchoscopies identify about 70% of lung cancers,” explained the interventional pulmonologist.
Put simply: “This technology can help us find more lung cancers and save more lives,” Dr. Weir said.
Virtua Health, South Jersey largest health system, recently increased access to this life-changing technology by bringing it to Virtua Mount Holly Hospital – where Vigneau was the facility’s first patient to undergo the procedure. The not-for-profit institution launched a similar system at Virtua Marlton Hospital 18 months ago, and its advantages quickly prompted the expansion.
As a result, more South Jersey residents can receive this enhanced care, close to home.
And fortunately, routine lung screenings – available at many Virtua facilities – can catch early signs of cancer. These low-dose CT scans are recommended for former and current heavy smokers ages 50 to 80, for up to 15 years after they quit.
More Precision, Fewer Biopsies
Robotic-assisted bronchoscopy enables a physician to send a thin tube, called a bronchoscope, through the mouth and into the lungs’ airways. Using a highly precise, videogame-style controller, the doctor guides tiny tools through the bronchoscope, and maneuvers them to biopsy (take samples from) the nodule.
The robotic equipment enables a more exact, thorough sampling of suspicious tissue, yielding a more accurate result. Providing the most accurate biopsies is important, because it spares patients from needing a repeat biopsy or a more invasive type of biopsy, in which a needle goes through the chest wall.
With the robotic bronchoscopy system, “I’m doing everything I can to provide the highest quality of biopsy for the patient,” said Dr. Weir. “Patients get it all done in one procedure, rather than needing another biopsy, or a needle biopsy that exposes them to other risks.”
After Vigneau’s bronchoscopy – an outpatient procedure – she immediately resumed her normal activities. “I felt no pain or anything,” said the retired billing manager.
A week later, she and her husband Robert even took a previously planned vacation – travelling to San Antonio, Texas, where they “did a lot of walking.”
Vigneau had surgery in December to remove the cancer. Doctors used a separate robotic-surgery system for the procedure, performed at Virtua Marlton Hospital. The minimally invasive operation was done through five small slits on the side of Vigneau’s chest, toward her back.
Robotic surgery offers many advantages, giving surgeons greater dexterity and clearer views inside the patient’s body, among other benefits, according to thoracic surgeon Matthew Puc, MD, who performed Vigneau’s operation.
“I’m thrilled they were able to do it robotically,” said Vigneau. “There were no complications. I went in on a Monday and came home that Thursday.”
Her recovery is going well. Vigneau was “extremely tired” at first, but her energy has returned. She’s resumed driving, and is excited to get back to line-dancing – her passion.
Return to the Dance Floor
In fact, she and husband Robert just returned from an annual cruise with a group of 35 fellow line-dancers, including their own DJ.
“It was a beautiful trip,” said Vigneau, recalling stops in Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica, to name a few. “I’m amazed that I was able to dance along with everyone in my group. I am truly blessed to have had the Virtua team on my side!”
Although Vigneau’s tumor required doctors to remove about one-third of her right lung – the lower lobe – she feels no change in her breathing.
“Most patients feel like they can breathe normally once they’re fully recovered. They won’t notice a difference,” said Dr. Puc, who also serves as program director of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Cancer Program.
“Everything we do is based on the person’s pulmonary function,” he added. “We want to make sure people can tolerate whatever treatment they need.”
Thanks in part to Vigneau’s early diagnosis, Dr. Puc was able to preserve 80% of her lung capacity. She also didn’t need other treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy.
“I’m so thankful for Dr. Weir and Dr. Puc,” she said. “And I’m grateful for Dr. Sutherland, who pushed me to have the lung screening. The entire Virtua care team was absolutely wonderful, including the office staff.”
Vigneau’s husband and two adult children also provided invaluable support, she emphasized. Now that she’s cancer-free, her family is “elated.”
“Thinking how it could have been, and it ended up so well – we went from one extreme to the other,” she said.
Vigneau’s advice to other former and current smokers: “Get screened early, even if you don’t think there’s an issue.”