Soccer mom is back at play after the removal of an ovarian tumor

Alarmed by a fast-growing ovarian mass, a soccer-playing mom seeks answers at UC Irvine Medical Center

September 20, 2010
Becky Spears, a soccer-playing mother of three, undergoes robotic surgery at UC Irvine to remove a suspicious mass from her fallopian tube.

When a baseball-sized mass on Becky Spears’ left ovary had grown even larger despite three months of standard therapy with birth control pills, her gynecologist recommended surgery.

Trouble was, the gynecologist's surgical partner was booked for two months and wouldn’t have access to an operating room equipped for robotic surgery at a community hospital for a month after that. The prospect of waiting another three months sent the soccer-playing mother of three into a panic.

“I’d already had this in me for three months that I was aware of—and they said it had probably been there for awhile to be that big,” recalls Spears, 40, of Anaheim Hills. “They told me it was probably nothing to worry about, but they were asking me to wait another three months. That’s when I said, ‘I just want it out.’ You think the worst.”

A relative suggested that Spears contact the experts at the UC Irvine Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Orange County and one of only 41 in the nation. In little more than a week, ovarian cancer specialist Dr. Krishnansu S. Tewari performed robot-assisted outpatient surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center, removing a cyst that had ballooned to nearly three inches in diameter inside her left fallopian tube.

“It was ready to pop,” recalls the gynecologic oncologist, adding that had the tumor ruptured, it could have caused dangerous internal bleeding and would likely have required Spears to undergo major abdominal surgery. “We see women in the emergency room all the time with this.”

Spears, a former middle-school teacher, was back to her regimen of shuttling children, running and playing in a women’s soccer league within a month of the procedure last Jan. 27. She says Tewari “was glad we had done it when we did because it was just a matter of time before it would burst.” She was also relieved to know that the tumor wasn’t malignant.

Most women of child-bearing age develop ovarian cysts and 95 percent of these are benign, disappearing within a few menstrual cycles. Those that don’t dissolve or respond to standard hormone therapy can be cause for concern.

Tewari told Spears after his initial examination that the soft mass was likely benign but that he wouldn’t know for sure unless he operated, which he recommended given that it had grown larger since it was first discovered in October of 2009.

“You really don’t know what it is until you get it out,” explains Tewari, who led the university’s participation in groundbreaking clinical trials of the drug Avastin®, which shows considerable promise in treating ovarian cancer. The disease kills an estimated 15,000 of the 22,000 U.S. women diagnosed with it each year and is second only to lung cancer in lethality among women.

Because the doctors at Orange County's only university medical center have access to more robotic equipment than at most community hospitals, Tewari was able to schedule a procedure right away. Within 10 minutes of removing the cyst at UC Irvine's Douglas Hospital, he got lab confirmation that it was benign. The robotic system’s three-dimensional images also allowed him to see that she had healthy tissue throughout her pelvic area, prompting him to close three small incisions and send her home after anesthesia wore off later the same day.

Spears’ word for Tewari is “incredible,” and not just because he patiently answered her every query without “talking down to me,” rearranged his schedule to get her in quickly and provided his mobile phone number, encouraging her to use it at any hour if she had a problem or a question. It also was because of his concern about her husband's ability to rearrange his business travel schedule so that he could be at the hospital when she had surgery.

“Here’s this big doctor worried about whether my husband is going to be able to change his work trip,” Spears marvels. “It is very rare that a doctor would even think of that.”

Maybe so, but to the surgeon, her husband’s presence was essential in the event that the tumor ruptured or turned out to be cancer. Likewise, giving out his cell number and checking in personally just before and in the hours and days after surgery is just good patient care.

“People don’t usually like going to the doctor and they like going to an oncologist even less,” Tewari says. “I want them to understand that there’s a plan, that they have a way to reach me and that even if it is cancer, there is a way to treat them.”

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