Moffitt Cancer Center Performs First Fully Robotic Whipple Surgery in Florida

January 10, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. —When nagging chest pain sent Thomas Whitney to the doctor, he thought he was having an ulcer. Instead, a CT scan showed a mass on his pancreas — stage IV cancer. “I had my laptop with me, which was not a good thing, and I immediately started looking up how only a small percentage of pancreatic cancers are operational, that I’d maybe have six to 18 months to live,” said Whitney, 61. “I was reading all doom and gloom. It really got me depressed. My wife, my son, my daughter getting married, my family and friends are all big motivators to make sure I stayed alive.”

Fortunately for Whitney, Moffitt Cancer Center is the first to perform a fully robotic Whipple procedure in Florida. The Whipple is the most commonly performed surgery to remove tumors in the pancreas. Whitney was one of the first patients to undergo this complex procedure in September.

The Moffitt Institute for Robotic Cancer Surgery boasts an advanced minimally invasive and robotic gastrointestinal surgery program. Moffitt is among the highest volume centers for Whipples in the country, having performed 450 surgeries since 2007, and is the first to use the da Vinci Surgical System for the procedure in Florida. The benefit? Patients experience faster long-term recovery with the minimally invasive surgery.

A standard Whipple traditionally involves removal of the head of the pancreas, gall bladder, bile duct, part of the stomach and small intestine. Then the remaining pancreas and digestive organs are reconnected. This requires a large incision to access each organ. But the robotic Whipple involves a surgeon maneuvering a robot through several small incisions, which means less pain, shorter hospital stays, faster recovery times, and minimal scarring and blood loss. Moffitt performed 16 robotic Whipples in 2012.

Dr. Mokenge Malafa, chair of the department of Gastrointestinal Oncology at Moffitt, and his team performed Whitney’s robotic Whipple. Two weeks later, Whitney was back home in St. Petersburg. He’s back to walking, driving and shopping with his wife of 39 years. “My recovery has been phenomenal in terms of how I feel and how I’ve been able to bounce back and progress,” Whitney said.

Whitney is no stranger to robotics. He had robotic surgery to remove prostate cancer five years ago at Moffitt.

Whitney urges people to take control of their health. He didn’t realize that his chest pain, unexplained weight loss, and a yellowing of the eyes and fingernails — known as jaundice — are symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Whitney is undergoing chemotherapy to combat stray cancer cells found in his liver, and he’s keeping a positive attitude. “I’m not ready to go anywhere. My mother loved living, and she was a great example for me. She used to say, ‘When the Lord comes calling, tell him I’m not ready to pick up the phone.’ That’s where I’m at right now.”

Malafa estimates that half of Moffitt’s Whipple surgeries can be performed robotically. Candidates eligible for the robotic Whipple procedure include patients with a tumor in the head of the pancreas that can be treated surgically. The patient must be able to undergo general anesthesia.

For more information on Moffitt’s robotic and minimally invasive surgeries, call 1-888-MOFFITT (1-888-663-3488) or visit

About Moffitt Cancer Center

Located in Tampa, Moffitt is one of only 41 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, a distinction that recognizes Moffitt’s excellence in research, its contributions to clinical trials, prevention and cancer control. Since 1999, Moffitt has been listed in U.S. News & World Report as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” for cancer. With more than 4,200 employees, Moffitt has an economic impact on the state of nearly $2 billion. For more information, visit, and follow the Moffitt momentum on Facebook, twitter and YouTube.