“Without The Royal Marsden combining leading-edge research with clinical practice, I wouldn’t here today.”

Nine years after his first treatment, Former surgeon Michael Thick was told his cancer had returned. Thanks to a pioneering surgical procedure at The Royal Marsden, he is now cancer free.

Michael's Story

“I first noticed something was wrong in around 2008 or 2009.” says Michael, 71 from Norfolk. “I had an increasingly large lump in my neck, and I decided to do something about it. I had a biopsy at The Royal Marsden and was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer.” 

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer which develops in the oropharynx; part of the throat just behind the mouth including the back wall of the throat, soft palate, tonsils and the very back of the tongue. This area is particularly important as it helps you speak and swallow.

After his diagnosis, things moved quickly - Michael underwent surgery and his oncologist also asked if he wanted to go onto a clinical trial. Michael agreed and he was treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy in combination.  

“The surgery went very well but the subsequent treatment following my first diagnosis left me a fraction of my original weight and extremely unwell. My recovery was slow, and it took over a year to return to work.” 

“Over 10 months of my recovery I physically was not able to do anything but wanted to keep my brain working and not lose the opportunities once I had recovered. I am a qualified pilot, so during my recuperation, I did an exam which allows you to fly in poor visibility. I also completed beekeeping and deer management qualifications, and an ocean-going yacht master sailing qualification.” 

Michael Thick standing on a boat. his hands are on his hips and he is wearing a white polo shirt.

Then, in 2019, Michael noticed some changes. 

“As a former transplant surgeon, I know a fair bit about cancer and its treatment” says Michael. While I hoped I had been cured in 2009, I knew there was a chance it would come back. In 2019, I noticed swallowing felt uncomfortable and my tongue was slightly painful” 

After some tests it was confirmed that Michael's cancer had recurred. It is estimated that between 20% and 40% of head and neck cancers will return after treatment.  

“Fortunately, in 2019, I was offered robotic surgery to remove the cancer. It was a very attractive choice as the alternative would have been very unpleasant; open surgery where my jaw would have been split, followed by full facial reconstruction.” 

Transoral Robotic Surgery at The Royal Marsden 

Under the care of Professor Vinidh Paleri, Michael had an innovative type of surgery called Transoral robotic surgery (TORS) which was pioneered at The Royal Marsden. TORS uses a surgical robot to guide tools which are passed through the mouth to reach tumours in the head and neck.  

Professor Vinidh Paleri with the Da Vinci Xi robot. He is wearing blue scrubs and a cap.
Professor Vinidi Paleri with the da Vinci Robot

A recent study led by Professor Vinidh Paleri suggests this minimally invasive robotic surgery technique can improve two – year survival rates, reduce recovery time and minimise impact on speech and eating compared to other available treatments for head and neck cancer patients.  

“Recurrent head and neck cancer can be incredibly difficult to manage" says Professor Paleri, "as patients have already been treated, often with surgery and radiotherapy, this can cause anatomical changes, scarring, and impaired healing. For these patients, the very latest in surgical technology and treatment is vital for successful treatment, so TORS is an extremely welcome innovation.” 

Your support helps us fund innovative research 

The pace of cancer research moves quickly, so it’s vital that The Royal Marsden’s clinicians and researchers are able to stay at the forefront of the latest advances. Thanks to our supporters we can fund pioneering cancer research that will help transform treatment and care for people like Michael, now and long into the future. 

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