UI Hospital offers robotic surgery for head and neck cancer

Barry Wenig

Dr. Barry Wenig, Francis L. Lederer professor and director, head and neck surgery and robotic surgery.

Two experts in the use of robot-assisted surgery to treat head and neck cancers have joined the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System department of otolaryngology – head & neck surgery.

Dr. Barry L. Wenig, a nationally recognized leader in minimally-invasive head and neck cancer robotic surgery, has been named the Francis L. Lederer professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and director of head and neck surgery and robotic surgery at UI Health. Dr. Gina Jefferson will join him in growing UI Health’s robotic surgery program.

Wenig and Jefferson are experts in the use of a surgical approach called transoral robotic surgery, or TORS, to reach throat, tongue, tonsil and larynx tumors by going in through the mouth instead of through an incision in the neck.

Transoral robotic surgery speeds the recovery of quality-of-life functions like speech and swallowing after surgery.

“Drs. Wenig and Jefferson are the most experienced surgeons in the Midwest when it comes to using the robot for head and neck cancer surgery,” said Dr. J. Regan Thomas, Mario D. Mansuteo professor and head of otolaryngology – head & neck surgery. Only a handful of surgeons have this experience, Thomas said, because the FDA only approved this surgery within the last three years.

Gina Jefferson

Dr. Gina Jefferson, associate professor of otolaryngology — head and neck surgery.

“When the neck is cut to get at the cancer, the incisions need to heal before the patient can start swallowing or talking without too much pain or difficulty,” said Jefferson. “With TORS, the patient can usually eat and talk just a few hours after surgery.”

Robotic surgery, with its smaller incisions, enhances and expedites recovery and minimizes infection and pain while also providing experienced surgeons a better view of the cancer, said Wenig.

“The surgeon can peel back cancerous tissue and see what is behind it with the robotic 3-D view much better than with a regular 2-D monitor view,” said Wenig. “Patients who have robotic surgery also tend to need less postoperative therapy like radiation treatment because we have such a better view of the cancer and can get much more of it during surgery.”

Wenig was previously director of otolaryngology – head & neck surgery at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Jefferson comes to UI Health from the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

The University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System provides comprehensive care, education and research to the people of Illinois and beyond. The UI Health System includes a 495-bed tertiary hospital; the University of Illinois at Chicago colleges of Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Nursing, and Applied Health Sciences, the UIC School of Public Health and UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work; 22 outpatient clinics located in Chicago; 12 federally qualified health centers throughout the city; and College of Medicine and affiliated health care facilities in Urbana, Peoria and Rockford.