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RPA celebrates 1000th Pelvic Exenteration Surgery

Institute of Academic Surgery holds special educational symposium.

Four people with flowers standing in a row
SydneyConnect Image: Nicole Harlow (second from left) and other Pelvic Exenteration patients

Cancer survivor Nicole Harlow had pelvic exenteration surgery two years ago.

Pelvic exenteration is a complex procedure that is performed to remove cancer that has involved part, or all of, the contents of the pelvis, giving patients a chance for a better quality of life. In most cases, it may be a patient’s only hope for a cure. 

“I walk for hours, run, do step classes and weights. If you met me today you wouldn’t even know I had this surgery,” Nicole said.

Originally diagnosed in 2016 with rectal cancer, Nicole had a permanent stoma (an opening in her abdomen used to remove bodily waste), and after a long recovery completed chemotherapy in 2017.

Pelvic exenteration surgery was later recommended but after reading about poor results of the surgery overseas and engaging with the colorectal community thorough social media, Nicole was initially hesitant.

“I had a phone call from [Doctor] Peter Lee’s surgery asking me to come in. He was really enthusiastic, sat me down and said, ‘We can operate’. I felt like the floor was going to melt out way beneath me. I was really excited. This is my chance at living as long a life as possible,” Nicole said.

In 2022, RPA became the first hospital in the world to perform 1000 cases of pelvic exenteration surgery.

The Institute of Academic Surgery (IAS) celebrated the milestone by hosting an educational symposium last month, inviting former patients, members of the surgical community, researchers, and clinicians to share and learn about their journeys in the field.

Presentations included the experience of post-operative care in the hospital ward, discussion of surgical options, and research opportunities in Australia and internationally.

Nicole joined three other pelvic exenteration patients for a panel discussion where each shared their surgical stories and journey towards recovery. They were also able to thank the wider team who gave them the chance at a better quality of life.

Reflecting on her multi-disciplinary care team, Nicole acknowledged Clinical Nurse Consultant Sophie Hatcher, Associate Professor Paul Stalley and the nurses who supported her care.

“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing. I can’t fault it. The care is exceptional,” she said.

“Paul just made me feel [very] much in safe hands, and Sophie has been a point of contact for everything. The care has been amazing. My daughter came and saw me every day and the nursing team treated her like she was one of their own. She felt very empowered to care for me.”

Led by Professor Michael Solomon, who performed the first pelvic exenteration surgery in 1994, the team at RPA is made up of surgeons, anaesthetists, physicians, nurses, allied health professionals and pain management specialists.