How Covid Uncovered Cancer
Texas Resident Robyn Howard chose CBMC in her native New Jersey to undergo life-changing surgery for kidney cancer — which she only discovered during an ER visit related to coronavirus.
Not so many people can say that a COVID-19 diagnosis has been a blessing in disguise, but Robyn Howard can. In late December 2021 and at the peak of the Omicron variant, Robyn, a resident of El Paso, TX, wasn’t feeling well and checked herself into a local emergency room. Her COVID test came back positive and her case was severe, so the doctors administered Remdesivir over the course of three days, which helps lessen the symptoms and severity of the virus. But by the third treatment, something was off. Robyn was vomiting up blood, something she says she had only seen in the movies. She then had a CT scan that revealed a mass on her kidney, which was unrelated to her vomiting (and her COVID). “The doctor there said he was 90 percent sure it was cancer,” Robyn recalls. “He told me to get a second opinion.”
Robyn, 48, immediately called her parents in Jersey City—her mom is a nurse and her father has been treated for two types of cancer over the past 25 years. Mom told her daughter to come back up to New Jersey so she could be seen by her father’s oncologist. So, in January, with her scans and hospital records in tow, Robyn flew to New Jersey to see the oncologist and his team who, after examining her, referred her for surgery to Rahuldev Bhalla, M.D., urologic oncologist and chairman of the department of urology at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center (CBMC) and member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.
“I didn’t have time to process everything,” Robyn says. “I had two doctors in two different states telling me I have cancer! But my granddaughter was born at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, and I knew of its stellar reputation, so I was already comfortable.”
Robyn’s official diagnosis was stage 1 renal cell carcinoma, or kidney cancer, says Dr. Bhalla—she had a 3-centimeter mass on her kidney, which Dr. Bhalla told her had probably developed in 2019. “Had I not had COVID and had them run these tests, I never would’ve known [about this mass],” says Robyn. “I didn’t have one symptom.”
Her surgery took place on March 2, 2022, during which Dr. Bhalla and his surgical team laparoscopically removed the entire kidney via three small incisions. “The lesion was so close to the blood vessel that it would’ve spread if we didn’t take out the whole kidney,” Dr. Bhalla says. “There were multiple conversations about this with the patient beforehand, but ultimately, we made the right decision and spared her from having to do radiation or chemotherapy.”
During these conversations, Dr. Bhalla always made his patient feel at ease. “He was confidently unwavering in his decision to proceed swiftly to ensure that the cancer wouldn’t spread,” Robyn says. “The compassion, honesty and realistic view of the situation that Dr.Bhalla provided made the process so much easier.”
For example, he assured a nervous Robyn that she’d need to make some lifestyle adjustments—limit her soda intake, eat more veggies and modify her meat consumption—but would be totally healthy with just one kidney. Robyn also plans to exercise regularly and drink more water. “I should be doing all of these things anyway, but now there’s more of an urgency,” she says. “I’m probably going to lose a lot of weight!”
After surgery, Robyn remained in the hospital so staff could monitor her pain levels and blood pressure, but she says her recovery was relatively easy—her pain was minimal, the care was exceptional and her incision, located just above her naval, was “extremely well done.” “
Very rarely can you tell someone that they’re cured of cancer, but she is cured,” says Dr. Bhalla. “That’s because she was stage 1 and it was picked up early, and the surgery was 100 percent successful resulting in negative margins [for cancer].”
On March 23, after clearance from Dr. Bhalla, Robyn flew back home to her husband and her three children in Texas, requiring occasional ibuprofen for pain management. And this surgery has changed Robyn’s life, but not just because it saved it.
“I have a different type of respect for life now and I’m more serious about diving into my passion of working with children and diving into the arts,” she says. “I’m now more present in the moment and really value family so much more.”
Speaking of family, Robyn learned later on through genetic testing that she developed this cancer due to a genetic mutation. Her three children and her mother are soon getting tested for these markers too.
She needs a scan every six months or so to make sure cancer hasn’t developed in the remaining kidney, and she plans to include her New Jersey doctors in her care in Texas. In fact, her primary care physician will be conducting Zoom calls over the next few months with both of her doctors.
“Dr. Bhalla told me I was just centimeters away from my cancer spreading,” Robyn concludes. “He gave me a new lease on life. My family and I are beyond blessed and grateful for this gifted doctor and wonderful humanitarian.”
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Bhalla, call 908.604.8464. CBMC, together with Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, is the state’s only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.