Video: Tool allows colon surgery without staples

The material called nitinol is stronger than steel and was once used to build Russian submarines. Now it's helping cancer patients fight their own battles.

"You don't want to believe it's cancer," said colon cancer patient Hanelore Shwartz. "It's just a bad word. It's a death sentence to me."

Shwartz's quiet life turned upside down when the doctor told her she had colon cancer.

"I was never sick a day in my life, believe it or not, and then you're being told you have cancer," she said.

Treatment typically involves stapling the colon back together after removing the tumor, but in 12 to 20 percent of lower colon operations, the sharp staples can lead to leaks, bleeding and infections.

"The staples that are used to connect the bowel, especially very low in the pelvis, sometimes can cause micro-perforations, or very small holes," said Daniel Marcus, M.D., a general and laparoscopic surgeon at Marina Del Rey Hospital.

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Dr. Marcus uses a metal ring instead of staples. Using an applicator, he positions the ring in the colon. Gradually, over the next two weeks, the nitinol springs pull the two parts together. Then the ring passes through the body.

"It's sort of like the hem of a skirt or a pair of pants," Dr. Marcus explained. "Once that cuts through and the ring passes, the only thing there is the tissue itself."

Compared with staples, patients get their GI function back sooner -- meaning hospital stays are cut by one to two days.

Shwartz was back to her daily walks with her dog Max two weeks after surgery.

"I'm a survivor, you know?" Shwartz said.

She's cancer-free, and her biggest supporter is by her side celebrating every moment.

The ring can be used for other GI conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. It's being used in about 60 hospitals cross the country.

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