Skip to main content
Comprehensive Surgical Services

Comprehensive Surgical Services

Robotic surgery enables patient to climb past cancer

John Gallagher first noticed a lump under his jaw right before his annual physical. His primary-care physician at UC Davis Health System in Sacramento said it might be a sinus infection that had caused a lymph node to overreact, but recommended that Gallagher return if the lump didn’t go away.

Gallagher returned. He was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who performed a biopsy. The diagnosis was throat cancer, and Gallagher was then referred to Gregory Farwell, a professor of otolaryngology and director of head and neck oncology and microvascular surgery at UC Davis.

Through several examinations, including an exploratory procedure to obtain tissue samples, Farwell and his team determined that Gallagher’s cancer had started in his tonsils and spread to a couple of lymph nodes. It was diagnosed as stage IV, due to the size of the tumor and its presence in several different locations.

John Gallagher, robotic surgery patient

But it wasn’t all bad news for Gallagher. Farwell explained that UC Davis Medical Center’s robotic surgical system could be used in his case. It would enable Farwell and his team to perform a much less invasive procedure to remove the cancerous cells.

“When Dr. Farwell described the common surgical method previously used, I felt very fortunate that I could benefit from the robotic surgery and also to be under his care,” says Gallagher, who leads a commercial real estate company and is an avid hiker.

“I researched the robotic procedure on the web and found articles and pictures describing the process. I was surprised to see that the surgeon performs the operation looking at a screen while manipulating a joy stick. Dr. Farwell must have occupied his time between classes by playing video games. He’s good!” jokes Gallagher.

The robotic-assisted procedure was done entirely through Gallagher’s mouth, without an incision. Traditionally, it would have required a surgical opening through his lip, with Farwell dividing the lower jaw in half to get the tumor out and then doing a microvascular transplant of Gallagher’s arm or leg tissue to reconstruct the defect before rebuilding the jaw.

After healing from surgery, Gallagher began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. Done concurrently, the chemotherapy lasted for five weeks while radiation was five days a week for six weeks.

“The radiation was the biggest challenge,” Gallagher says.

But his recovery has been excellent. “I quickly started to gain back weight and strength. I’ve regained 80 percent of taste buds, and 30 percent of my salivary glands have regenerated. I have to walk around with a bottle of water,” he adds.

Apart from seeing Farwell every two months now for a checkup, life has pretty much returned to normal for Gallagher. He wants to keep it that way. With the exception of about two weeks directly after surgery, Gallagher went to work every day.

He adds, “I feel so lucky to have had Dr. Farwell treating me with such wonderful technology and care. It helped make this bad experience seem like just a bump in the road.”

In fact, less than a year after his treatment, Gallagher climbed Mount Whitney in California’s Sequoia National Park.

“I’m not sure Dr. Farwell has too many patients that have climbed the tallest mountain in the lower 48,” he says. “I’ve done it before, but this time was special.”