Brain Surgery Through the Nose

Photo: Brain Surgery Through The Nose

A survivor of brain surgery, Kellie Graham considers herself lucky because she was diagnosed early, because she received advanced medical care and because she had a type of tumor that could be removed through her nose.

Graham had a tumor at the base of her brain, a pituitary tumor that was removed via a relatively novel technique known as endoscopic brain surgery. In this procedure, an endoscope is put through the nasal passages and an incision is made in the back by an otolaryngologist -- an ear, nose and throat surgeon -- and then handed off to a neurosurgeon to remove tumors at the base of the brain.

"I felt really comfortable with it because both physicians explained to me exactly what they were going to do," said Graham, describing how she felt after she learned about the surgery.

She also was aided, she said, by the reassurances of a friend who had undergone a similar operation before.

"That was probably why I was not as apprehensive as I could have been," said Graham.

While the surgery treats a serious condition, surgeons who perform the operation say it is a more optimal treatment than some of those previously used.

"You're going through the nose, you're doing some dissection, but your tumor's right there," said Dr. Ameet Singh, an otolaryngologist and co-director of endoscopic pituitary and skull base surgery at the George Washington University Hospital, who performed Graham's operation. "You save the patient not only a lot of pain, but a lot of time in terms of their recovery period."

The procedure is one of many that have progressed in recent years and offer less-invasive operations, such as kidneys that are removed through the belly button. It is performed at a number of medical centers.

"This is a technique that has grown over the past five years through a close collaboration between ENT surgeons and neurosurgeons," said Dr. Theodore Schwartz, a neurosurgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center.

But while the particular operation Graham had was relatively novel, the notion of tumor removal through the nasal passages is not.

"The whole concept of removing pituitary tumors through the nose probably goes back to the 1960s -- it's probably been around 30 or 40 years," said Dr. Keith Black, director of the Cedars-Sinai Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute.

Brain tumors were initially treated by removing a piece of the skull, and in later years, procedures were done utilizing a microscope, which gave an enlarged view of the tumor and the surrounding area.

Black said that using the endoscope in place of the microscope presents a tradeoff -- advantageous in some aspects but a disadvantage in others.

With the endoscope, he said, the operation is a bit less invasive because the incision is made further back in the nasal passages.

At the same time, he said, "The disadvantage of the endoscope is that, with an endoscope, you're relying on a camera to look at the image."

In such a situation, he said, some depth perception is compromised, even with improved cameras that have higher definition.

"You don't quite have a three-dimensional image; you don't quite get three-dimensional depth," he said.

Endoscopic brain surgery is not available for all tumors in the brain, just those at the base.

Tumors like gliomas -- the type of tumor that afflicted the late Sen. Edward Kennedy -- would not be treatable with this procedure because they are located elsewhere in the brain.

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