Peter Lougheed Centre in northeast Calgary

A new surgical procedure being performed at the Peter Lougheed Centre (PLC) in northeast Calgary has patients heading home sooner and recovering faster.

The minimally invasive technique called endoscopic submucosal dissection (ESD) is being used to treat early stage stomach and intestinal cancers.

The procedure requires a team of gastroenterologists, surgeons, anesthetists, pathologists, and nurses. The team at the PLC is the first of its kind in western Canada to use ESD to remove gastrointestinal (GI) tract cancers.

To date, eight patients have been successfully treated using this method and three more are scheduled to undergo the procedure in March.

The eight patients who have undergone the surgery were discharged within 24 hours and did not experience complications requiring a return to hospital. In addition, patients undergoing ESD require little or no medication to deal with post-operation pain and recover more quickly than patients who undergo traditional cancer operations.

Prior to the adoption of ESD, patients undergoing GI cancer surgery spent several days in hospital and required weeks of recuperation.

"Treating most cancers of the GI tract has previously meant removing significant portions of the stomach or intestines, resulting in a lengthy recovery time and long-term effects that can include the need for permanent measures, such as a colostomy. This can have considerable impacts on eating habits and lifestyle," said Dr. Paul Belletrutti, a gastroenterologist performing this new intervention in Calgary. "With this minimally invasive technique, we can remove just the cancerous tissue without removing an entire section of the GI tract, which leads to a faster healing time, less pain, a shorter length of hospital stay and fewer potential long-term complications."

During the procedure a small flexible camera called an endoscope is inserted through the patient's throat or anus. Tools threaded through the endoscope allow surgeons to remove cancers from the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, or colon and rectum, while leaving the other organs untouched.

Andy Blundell, 68, was the first patient to undergo ESD in Calgary. His initial surgery was conducted in December and he had a follow-up surgery in February to remove a second tumour.

"I enjoyed breakfast at home the next morning less than 24 hours after my surgeries," said Blundell of his recovery. The next day he was out shooting pool and in a few weeks had returned to exercising.

Not every GI cancer can be treated using ESD.

"While patients do need to meet certain qualifications to undergo this procedure – including the type, stage and extent of the GI tract cancer,' said Dr. Mark Swain, section head of gastroenterology and hepatology for Alberta Health Services (AHS) – Calgary Zone. "We are working to make this treatment option widely available across southern Alberta."

Cancer of the GI tract affects about 6,000 Albertans yearly. With early detection and treatment, the disease is often cured.