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Her foot became numb while driving. A watermelon-sized fibroid was to blame

The mass was so large doctors thought they'd need to make a large incision and perform a hysterectomy. A third opinion gave her another option and hope.

As Natalie Suflita drove, she noticed her foot became numb. She had been experiencing pressure in her lower back and worried about nerve damage. After many doctors’ appointments, she learned she had a mass about the size of a watermelon in her pelvis. Several doctors believed it was cancer and recommended a hysterectomy.

“(The doctor) was like ‘I’m going to refer you to oncology,’” Suflita, 35, of Greece, New York, told TODAY. “I don’t really remember anything from that point.” 

After meeting with two oncologists, Suflita sought one last opinion at the Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health and learned that she could have the mass removed without a hysterectomy. Immediately she felt relief.  

“If my uterus comes out … and then I find out it’s not cancer, I would be annoyed,” she said. “Dr. Shirazian said, ‘You’re actually the perfect candidate for laparoscopic (surgery) because of where it’s located and that it’s growing on the stalk and it’s outside — it’s not growing into the empty space, my uterus muscle.”  


Back pressure, numbness and a surprise cause

Last fall, Suflita felt more pressure in her lower back and noticed numbness in her foot when she drove for more than 45 minutes. She had experienced back problems and now worried she also had nerve damage. After meeting with a doctor at a spine clinic, she underwent an MRI.

“I’m obese, lower back pain is super common. So when the results came back, they were like, ‘We want you to follow up,’” she said. “I read over the whole report and it’s a large pelvic mass. Basically they said right on the radiology report that they couldn’t rule out … cancer.”

Suflita didn't have a gynecologist at the time so she was talking with her primary care doctor and some friends who worked in health care. The day after her MRI results, she saw a gynecologist.

Fibroids are incredibly common, impacting about 70% of women. Many, like Natalie Suflita, are told they need a hysterectomy to treat them.
Fibroids are incredibly common, impacting about 70% of women. Many, like Natalie Suflita, are told they need a hysterectomy to treat them.Courtesy Natalie Suflita

“They were like, ‘Oh this is really common.’ They probably even said they think it’s a fibroid,’” Suflita said. “They said, ‘A lot of women have it and you’re asymptomatic.’”

While she experienced pressure and numbness but she did not have heavy bleeding with periods that’s often a hallmark fibroids. Still, she worried about what the original radiology report said her possibly having cancer and underwent an ultrasound with a different gynecologist.

“When she looks at the results with me, she was like, ‘Yep it’s a fibroid. It’s really big,” Suflita said. “She was like, ‘We could do surgery to cut it out’ but you’re not having symptoms.”

Natalie Suflita felt unsure of undergoing a hysterectomy to treat her pelvic mass. She met Dr. Taraneh Shirazian at Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health who knew she could remove it without compromising Suflita's fertility.
Natalie Suflita felt unsure of undergoing a hysterectomy to treat her pelvic mass. She met Dr. Taraneh Shirazian at Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health who knew she could remove it without compromising Suflita's fertility.Courtesy Natalie Suflita

Her doctor said it could not be removed laparoscopically because of the location and the size, which was 20 centimeters by 20 centimeters. She asked for another imaging test, which the doctor ordered to help Suflita make her decision and the doctor recommended that Suflita visit an oncologist. The first doctor she saw wanted to remove it and thought her uterus and ovaries might also need to be removed. 

“I was like, ‘So if it isn’t a fibroid what do you think it is?’ and he was like, ‘Oh definitely a sarcoma, which of all the uterine cancers is like the most aggressive, ugly one,’” Suflita said. 

She felt conflicted about the surgery. While she wanted the mass removed, Suflita is not in a serious relationship and does not have any children. She wondered what would happen if she one day wanted to get pregnant but couldn’t because of what could potentially be an unnecessary hysterectomy. 

“I was not OK with if I woke up (after surgery) and I didn’t have a uterus, of course thankfully, I didn’t have the fibroids but also didn’t have ovaries and then it wasn’t cancerous,” she said. “I would be so regretful.”

She started the process to undergo surgery, but canceled and sought another opinion. While that doctor made her feel more comfortable, she still wasn’t sure about the treatments being offered. 

“He’s like ‘It’s already a really bloody surgery, cutting you open,’” she recalled. “At this point it’s been so long and I’ve waited for all these scans and follow ups and I’m like, ‘Well I’m not rushing into this now. I’m just buying time for saving my uterus potentially.’”

The fibroid Natalie Suflita had took up much of her abdomen and was about the size of a watermelon.
The fibroid Natalie Suflita had took up much of her abdomen and was about the size of a watermelon.Courtesy Natalie Suflita

After meeting with that doctor, she heard about the Center for Fibroid Care and visited for a third opinion. She had heard a friend of a friend had a “soccer ball size fibroid successfully separated from her uterus.’

“I was like, ‘Wow, this seems like a shot in the dark,’” she said. “(The doctor) looked at all the images and all the things collectively and she was like, ‘I know 99% of the time they’re benign.’”

What are fibroids?

Dr. Taraneh Shirazian started the Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health to help people with fibroids. They’re very common— occurring in 70% of all women she said. While they aren’t cancerous, that doesn’t mean they’re harmless.

“Fibroids are benign tumors,” Shirazian, an OB-GYN in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Health, told TODAY. “They’re often rapidly developing and rapidly growing tumors that are very vascular and have a lot of blood flow. So they grow massively.”  

While about a quarter of fibroids are asymptomatic, others cause symptoms that interfere with people’s lives.

“They create a whole host of problems like pain, like hemorrhage to the point of needing blood (transfusions),” Shirazian said. “Patients will come to the emergency room because they’re hemorrhaging every month. They can’t leave their homes. They can’t go to work. It creates pressure.”

Fibroids can grow quickly and massively.
Fibroids can grow quickly and massively.Courtesy Natalie Suflita

Pressure on the bladder causes people to urinate frequently while pressure in the rectum can cause constipation and pain. 

“They can really wreak havoc on patient’s lives,” Shirazian said. “They really affect quality of life extensively.”

Estrogen fuels fibroid growth and people with a family history of fibroids are more likely to have them.

“We also know that there’s a racial disparity so that Black women are far more affected than white women,” Shirazian said. “Although all groups are affected.”

Patients are often offered a hysterectomy, which might frighten them from receiving treatment.

“Women that have these big fibroids or masses, they go to their doctors across the country and they tell them the same horrible things like it’s cancer. We’re going to have to cut you down the middle with a huge vertical incision and we probably can’t keep your uterus,” she said. “Women feel scared and they don’t go back and the tumors continue to grow.” 

Shirazian said that treating fibroids often doesn’t involve a hysterectomy. 

“We have everything from medications that can help shrink them,” she explained. “There’s this new procedure called a transcervical laser ablation of fibroids.” 

Natalie Suflita feels grateful she found a doctor who understood what her large pelvic mass was and could remove it without also removing her uterus.
Natalie Suflita feels grateful she found a doctor who understood what her large pelvic mass was and could remove it without also removing her uterus.Courtesy Natalie Suflita

This procedure is for patients with smaller fibroids. The doctor inserts a vaginal probe that reaches fibroid and burns the center. For larger masses, doctors often use myomectomy, a minimally invasive surgery that removes the fibroid. In some cases hysterectomy is unavoidable.

“Patients shouldn’t feel afraid of coming to see their doctor ,” Shirazian said. “There’s many many options and good care.”

Surgery and recovery

After meeting with Suflita, Shirazian knew she could help her.

“(The mass) basically took up her entire abdomen. But I could tell that it had a lot of the key characteristics of a fibroid on her imaging,” Shirazian said. “I could see how it was attached to the uterus and how it could be separated off the uterus and her uterus could be maintained for her fertility.” 

Suflita underwent a myomectomy and enrolled in the Shirazian’s LIFE study, which aims to reduce fibroids from returning.

“I’ve been very interested in looking at how we can prevent recurrence of fibroids,” Shirazian explained. "(The study) focuses on diet, lifestyle, supplements after surgery or procedures to see if we can minimize these fibroids coming back.”

Fibroids recur in about 70% of patients, she added. 

Suflita had surgery on a Tuesday, staying one night in the hospital, before going home. By that weekend, she helped a friend with yard work.  

“The incisions took a minute to heal,” she said. “I had some uncomfortable nights sleeping and repositioning but it was nothing like if it was open surgery.”

Suflita encourages people to listen to their “gut” when it comes to finding a doctor.

“Find as much support as you can, as much information as you can,” she said. “You have to do what’s best for you.”

CORRECTION (July 21, 2022 4:58 p.m.): An earlier version of this story referred to the Light program. It is the LIFE study.