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Among his many titles and roles -- business consultant and former emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, to name a few -- there is one that Robert Bobb especially touts: Being the CEO of his health.
More than a title, it's a way of life for Bobb who was diagnosed in 2010 with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer at the base of the tongue.
"I was reading in the Washington Post that one of the most important roles you can have in life is to be the CEO of your health," says Bobb. "It's something that I live by and encourage others to do the same."
Robert Bobb continues to raise awareness for head and neck cancer by publicly sharing his story, in the hope that it may inspire others to become champions of their health.
For Bobb, his story began with a lump on the side of his neck. Having suffered with sinus problems for years, he says he didn't think much of the lump. "I would take a Tylenol and it would go down for a bit. It didn't bother me, but I knew I had something and procrastinated to talk with my physician."
On a trip from Detroit to his home in Washington, DC, Bobb went in for a routine visit with his physician. As his was leaving the appointment, Bobb mentioned the lump to his physician, who promptly ordered an MRI. The scan would reveal soft tissue at the base of his tongue.
Bobb returned to Detroit, where he met with a team in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Cancer Surgery and Henry Ford Cancer Institute at Henry Ford Hospital. There, it was confirmed that he had base of tongue cancer.
The Henry Ford team outlined his options for treatment: radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. One option stood out from the rest: TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS).
Approved only months earlier by the FDA in January 2010, TORS uses the da Vinci® Surgical System to offer patients a minimally invasive surgical approach to remove certain head and neck cancers without loss of function or scaring.
Unlike traditional head and neck cancer surgery, TORS allows patients to return to their normal lives only a few days after surgery without significant pain and disfigurement – a true selling point for Bobb, who was in the midst of the very high-pressure, high-profile job of reforming and improving the finances of Detroit Public Schools.
Henry Ford head and neck cancer surgeon Tamer Ghanem, M.D., Ph.D., among the first in Michigan and in the country to be trained for TORS, performed the robotic procedure. Dr. Ghanem completely removed the cancer while preserving Bobb's speech, swallowing, and other key quality of life issues.
Bobb returned to work only days after his surgery. In fact, five days after undergoing TORS, Bobb spoke at the University of Michigan 2010 spring commencement celebration. He also gave the commencement speech for the University of Detroit-Mercy Dental School five days after undergoing a second surgery, a neck dissection to remove lymph nodes.
Due to advanced stage of the disease, Bobb also received about six weeks of chemoradiation, with a reduced radiation dose thanks to TORS.
"Mr. Bobb is an amazing patient and a testament to the value of TORS," says Dr. Ghanem, director of the Head and Neck Oncology & Microvascular Surgery Division in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital.
"He was able to continue to work in an incredibly difficult job, all the while undergoing cancer treatment. Very few people knew at the time the health issues that he was facing outside of his job."
Prior to TORS, patients would traditionally begin treatment with radiation therapy, or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, depending on the stage of their cancer.
If these treatments were not successful, the next step would be traditional surgery, which requires a long incision be made across the lip and jaw to access the tumor. This approach can result in significant swelling, longer post-operative recovery and disfigurement, damage to surrounding structures, and speech and swallowing problems.
But with the TORS approach, surgeons can access tumors of the tonsil, base of tongue, or supraglottis (part of the voice box) through the patient's mouth using the slender arms of the da Vinci® Surgical System, thus not requiring an open skin incision.
Since 2010, the Henry Ford Hospital team led by Dr. Ghanem has performed nearly hundreds of TORS procedures to remove malignant and benign tumors of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, and parts of the throat.
"The entire staff of Henry Ford Hospital was just amazing. I really appreciated that these physicians and experts had real conversations with me about risks and what I was going to go through," says Bobb.
"Now when I see Henry Ford Hospital, I just want to wrap my arms around the building and give it a hug."
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