Becky Spears
Facing a three-month wait to have a baseball-sized ovarian growth removed and diagnosed, Becky Spears of Anaheim Hills turned to experts at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Paul R. Kennedy

Early this year, when a baseball-sized mass on Becky Spears’ left ovary grew even larger despite three months of standard therapy with birth control pills, her gynecologist recommended surgery.

But the surgeon was booked for two months and wouldn’t have access to a community hospital operating room equipped for robotic surgery for a month after that. The prospect of another three-month wait 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 apparently been there 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 three more months. That’s when I said, ‘I just want it out.’ You think the worst.”

A relative suggested she contact UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the sole National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Orange County and one of only 40 in the nation.

A little over a week later, on Jan. 27, ovarian cancer specialist Dr. Krishnansu S. Tewari performed robot-assisted outpatient surgery on Spears at UC Irvine Medical Center, removing a cyst that had ballooned to nearly 3 inches in diameter inside her left fallopian tube.

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

Most females of child-bearing age develop ovarian cysts, but 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 probably benign but that he couldn’t be sure unless he operated.

“You really don’t know what it is until you get it out,” explains the doctor, who led UCI’s participation in groundbreaking clinical trials of the drug Avastin, which shows considerable promise in treating ovarian cancer. The disease kills about 15,000 of the 22,000 Americans 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 Spears’ procedure right away. Less than 10 minutes after removing the cyst at UC Irvine Douglas Hospital, he got lab confirmation that it was benign.

The robotic system’s three-dimensional images also let Tewari see that Spears had healthy tissue throughout her pelvic area, prompting him to close three small incisions and send her home after the anesthesia wore off later that day. Within a month, the former middle-school teacher was back to shuttling children, running and playing in a women’s soccer league.

Spears’ word for Tewari is “incredible,” and not just because he patiently answered her every query without “talking down to me,” managed 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 question.

It’s because of Tewari’s 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’s very rare that a physician would even think of that.”

Tewari, however, views it all as simply good patient care.

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