[May 2008] Clarence T. Sasaki, MD, began his career in the laboratory, but he moved to the operating room and then around the world to learn new surgical skills and techniques for treating head and neck cancer. Thanks to his efforts over the past three decades, cancer patients now benefit from a wider array of surgical options that improve outcomes and limit disability and disfigurement.
As a surgeon, Sasaki became intrigued by European techniques that weren’t being used in this country. In 1978, he went to Milan to work with Ettore Bocca, MD, and brought back a procedure known as a functional neck dissection. “It has become the standard of care that allows us to remove only the diseased tissue and preserve the arteries, veins and major nerves of the head and neck,” Sasaki says.
He continued to hone his skills at the University of Zurich, where in 1982 he learned skull base surgery techniques from Ugo Fisch, MD, and in 1986 at London’s St. Mary’s Hospital, where he worked with plastic surgeon Dai Davies, MD. “Thirty years ago we had no way of reconstructing, and it limited surgeons’ enthusiasm for removing all of the disease because they were not sure that they could put things back together again,” he says. “Now that we have better ways to reconstruct, the effects are better in terms of functional restoration and also in terms of the way the patients look and feel about themselves.”
For example, larynx cancer used to be treated by removing the entire organ, but now Sasaki can use a laser to resect portions of the voice box, so that voice and swallow function are preserved. He also uses a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure to treat Zenker’s diverticulum, a condition that makes eating and swallowing difficult for the elderly.
Sasaki is gratified that he is able to help patients in a way he couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago with innovative and less invasive techniques to treat cancers of the larynx, tongue, jaw, ear and sinuses. “I hope I’ve been instrumental in bringing about those changes,” he says.
- Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Yale Practice.
Name: Clarence T. Sasaki, MD
Title: Charles W. Ohse Professor of Surgery (otolaryngology) and section chief, otolaryngology.
Area of expertise: Head and neck surgical oncology and laryngology.
Place of birth: Honolulu.
College: Pomona College.
Med School: Yale School of Medicine.
Training: Residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital in ear, nose and throat surgery; fellowships at the Physician at Work continued University of Milan (ENT surgery), University of Zurich (skull base surgery) and University of London (ENT surgery).
Family: Married to Carolyn; grown sons Peter and John.
What is most challenging to you in academic medicine? Maintaining a large enough clinical presence at the medical school to support the clinical and basic research needs of my section.
What is most rewarding? To have sustained a line of research in larynx physiology for the past 25 years with and without NIH support.
What do you like most about your practice? My patients’ gratitude.
Personal interests or pastimes? I have a number of sports cars and I enjoy tinkering with them.
What would you do to improve our clinical environment if you had a magic wand? I would educate our public so they would better understand how we’ve acquired such a high standard of medical care. They don’t often understand the cultural, societal and financial costs that make this level of care available to all.