Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Rebecca Spivey

Rebecca Spivey has been a cancer survivor longer than she can remember. At the tender age of four, she was diagnosed with a Wilms’ tumor, or nephroblastoma, a cancer of the kidneys primarily affecting children. Treated with radiation therapy, her young body won its battle and Rebecca thrived with no major complications.

Thirty-two years later, Rebecca, a stay-at-home mom, was happily enjoying her young family, husband David and two young children, Arlo, 5, and Hazel, 2, when she happened to notice a hard knot on her rib. The knot grew more painful and Rebecca grew concerned.

Several months and numerous exams, X-rays and CT scans later, Rebecca was referred to an orthopaedic oncologist at VCU Massey Cancer Center who quickly diagnosed her with radiation-induced osteosarcoma – a tumor in her bone that had likely developed as a long-term effect of the high dose of radiation she received as a child.

“Honestly, cancer was the furthest thing from my mind – I kind of figured I already had my share,” says Rebecca.

Under the care of Massey physician and associate director of clinical research John Roberts, M.D., along with nurse practitioner Gwen Parker, Rebecca embarked on a treatment path that included surgery to remove the tumor and chemotherapy to rid her body of any further presence of the cancer.

“What made Rebecca’s case unique was that the chemotherapy used to fight osteosarcoma is the same drug that was used to treat her first cancer,” says Roberts.

“That particular drug can be damaging to the heart, so there is a lifetime limit on what we can give. We needed to be very careful to give Rebecca the benefit of the treatment without doing more damage.”

Rebecca and David were all too aware of these limitations. “We did a lot of our own research and knew that determining the right path of treatment would be difficult,” said David. “It was scary, but it also made us want to be absolutely sure Rebecca was in the best hands.”

“Learning you have cancer is very frightening and overwhelming. It’s hard to process all the information and make important decisions,” says Rebecca. “Meeting Dr. Roberts was the first time that I thought everything could turn out okay. His approach was confident and reassuring, and he always took plenty of time to answer our questions and explain everything we needed to know.”

“We’ve come a long way in how we treat cancer, but there are still too many patients facing long-term effects from treatment. That’s why our quest for better, safer therapies is so critical.” – John Roberts, M.D., associate director of clinical research

Rebecca and David’s experience with Roberts also made them aware of the value of Massey’s designation by the National Cancer Institute. “It was clear that we benefited not only from Dr. Roberts’ exceptional level of knowledge and experience, but that he had access to other experts all around the country who could weigh in and help determine what was best for Rebecca,” said David, adding, “What an amazing resource to have right here in Richmond.”

After careful planning by her team, Rebecca received four rounds of chemotherapy over the course of four months. By the end of 2010, she received a positive prognosis and finally felt like she was on a path back to her normal life.

“Our lives will never be the same. My perspective as a mother and a wife has been forever impacted by this experience. But, thanks to the treatment I received at Massey, I’ve been given a priceless gift — time to be a mom and watch my children grow up.”

Rebecca and David have a new appreciation for the value of the cancer research taking place at Massey. “With any luck, this will be the last time Rebecca has to face cancer. But if not, we feel comforted knowing there are researchers like Dr. Roberts learning new things every day and bringing more hope to more patients.”