During robotic surgery, a surgeon uses the arms of a robot to help guide and operate surgical tools. Benefits include increased precision, a lower risk of side effects, and a shorter recovery time.

Surgery that removes all or part of the kidney is the main treatment for many types of kidney cancer. If the cancer is small and remains localized to the kidney, surgery has the potential to cure the cancer.

Where possible, doctors prefer using minimally invasive surgical techniques for kidney cancer. One of these involves the use of robots and is called robotic surgery.

This article takes a closer look at robotic surgery, including how it differs from traditional or open surgery and its procedure, benefits, and cost.

Cure vs. remission in cancer

Cure: Generally speaking, a cure means that treatment has removed all traces of cancer, no more treatment is needed, and the cancer isn’t expected to return.

Remission: Remission is a period of time when the cancer is responding to treatment or is under control. Depending on the type of cancer, treatment may or may not continue during remission.

Complete remission means there aren’t any detectable signs of cancer. Partial remission means there are far fewer cancer cells, but they may still be detectable.

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Robotic surgery is a type of minimally invasive surgery that can be used for kidney cancer. In contrast to open surgeries, minimally invasive surgeries only use several small incisions in your abdomen instead of one large one.

Robotic surgery uses a laparoscope and other small surgical instruments. A laparoscope is a tube-shaped instrument with a camera and light on the end that allows your surgeon to see into your body as they do the surgery.

Unlike a typical laparoscopic surgery, instead of directly handling the laparoscope and other instruments, the surgeon uses a robot to help operate the surgical tools.

The robot has four different arms to hold and operate various instruments. The surgeon uses a control panel near to the operating table to guide the movements of the arms.

There are several benefits to robotic surgery for kidney cancer. For example, robotic surgery:

  • involves several small incisions instead of one large one like in open surgeries
  • is associated with fewer side effects, shorter hospital stays, and shorter recovery times than open surgeries
  • uses instruments that have a greater range of motion than the human hand, allowing a surgeon to operate with more precision than in other types of surgery
  • uses imaging technology that allows a surgeon to get high-magnification 3D views of areas inside of your body that are typically harder to see

While minimally invasive surgeries such as robotic surgery and laparoscopic surgery have a lower risk of side effects and a shorter recovery time, they can have similar cancer-related outcomes as open surgery.

For example, one 2018 study compared open, laparoscopic, and robot-assisted approaches for partial removal of the kidney. At the median follow-up of 5 years, the study found that there was no difference between the approaches in regard to:

  • cancer recurrence in the kidneys or surrounding tissues
  • spread of the cancer to distant tissues (metastasis)
  • death due to kidney cancer

Robotic surgery can be used to remove some or all of the kidney. These procedures are called partial and radical nephrectomy, respectively.

You’ll receive general anesthesia during your surgery. This means that you’ll be asleep during the procedure.

During the surgery, your surgeon will sit at the control panel that operates the arms of the robot. Three of the arms hold the different surgical instruments while one arm holds a high-magnification 3D camera.

The arms of the robot insert the camera and surgical instruments into small incisions made in your abdomen. The surgeon then controls the movements of each of the arms in order to conduct the surgery.

It’s important to emphasize that the robot isn’t doing the surgery on its own. Instead, the surgeon carefully guides each of the robot’s arms to precisely carry out the surgery.

Generally speaking, the recovery for robotic surgery for kidney cancer is similar to nonrobotic laparoscopic procedures.

It typically takes 10 to 14 days to fully recover from either procedure. However, it may take several weeks to completely return to your normal activities.

Having some discomfort or pain after surgery is normal and can be managed with medications. Examples of other potential side effects that you may experience after robotic surgery for kidney cancer include:

A 2018 study compared partial kidney removals (called nephrectomies) performed using open surgery, laparoscopic surgery, and robotic surgery. Compared with open surgery, both minimally invasive surgeries had:

  • lower levels of blood loss during surgery
  • shorter ischemic time, which means that blood flow is reduced or halted to tissue for a shorter amount of time during surgery
  • reduced length of hospital stay
  • less changes in kidney function after surgery

The researchers also noted that robotic surgery had a shorter operating time compared with laparoscopic surgery. However, other studies have found that robotic surgery is associated with a longer operating time.

Robotic surgery for kidney cancer is typically done in a hospital. Because it requires specialized equipment, it isn’t offered at all hospitals.

If you’re interested in robotic surgery for kidney cancer, ask your medical care team about locations where it’s available.

Additionally, the American Cancer Society notes that robotic surgery for kidney cancer is a difficult technique to learn, and its success depends on the surgeon’s expertise and skill.

As such, it’s important to select a surgeon with a great deal of experience in robotic surgery for kidney cancer. Your medical care team will be able to give you recommendations on surgeons with the appropriate experience.

Research has found that robotic surgery for kidney cancer is more expensive than other types of surgeries, including laparoscopic surgery and open surgery.

Generally speaking, health insurance will cover care that’s considered to be medically necessary for the diagnosis or treatment of a health condition.

That said, it’s always a good idea to check with your insurance provider about what’s covered and what you’ll be responsible for paying out of pocket.

Kidney surgery involves removal of some or all of the affected kidney. Surgeons typically try to use minimally invasive approaches where possible. One of these is robotic surgery, where the surgeon directs a robot to perform the surgery.

Robotic surgery is associated with many benefits. These include, but aren’t limited to, increased precision, a lower risk of side effects, and a shorter recovery time.

Robotic surgery is also expensive, requires specific expertise, and may not be available at all facilities. If you’re interested in robotic surgery for kidney cancer, talk with your care team to see if it’s a good fit for your treatment plan.