Fighting to Fix Her Cancer Diagnosis

Rachel Otto, seen with husband, Brandon, daughter, Harper, and son, Grayson, benefited from the advanced treatment options available at MedStar Franklin Square.

Specialized Treatment Provides Hope for the Future

Rachel Otto was playing with her children, both under the age of two, when she noticed a bump in her right thigh. It didn’t hurt, so she didn’t think much of it. Then, a few weeks later, she started to experience numbness in that leg. But the numbness subsided, so again, the busy mom figured it was nothing to worry about.

It was when she began to feel pain in her knee that she finally scheduled an appointment with an orthopaedic physician, hoping to get to the bottom of what the issue might be. An MRI was scheduled on a Friday, and at 7:45 a.m. the following Monday, Otto got a phone call that she never expected.

“They told me to drop what I was doing because my orthopaedic doctor wanted to see me immediately,” she recalls. “I was so confused.” The urgency, as it turns out, was based on a radiologist’s interpretation of her MRI. “We think it’s cancer, and you need to go see a specialist, today.” It was the message that changed Otto’s life.

Albert Aboulafia, MD

Determined to move quickly and consult with one of the area’s best orthopaedic oncologists, Otto and her husband, Brandon, turned to Albert Aboulafia, MD, medical director of MedStar Health Cancer Network and director of Orthopaedic Oncology at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. 

On the first visit, Dr. Aboulafia reviewed Otto’s MRI, which revealed a mass in her thigh, and arranged for a needle biopsy of the mass under local anesthesia. The biopsy confirmed that Otto had a rare form of cancer known as synovial sarcoma. She then had a series of tests to determine if the cancer was only in one location or if it had metastasized. A PET scan confirmed that the spot on her thigh was 17 centimeters in size and that the cancer had spread to her lungs and her knee.

“Dr. Aboulafia started to talk about staging and I honestly didn’t want to hear it,” says Otto. “I only wanted to know how they were going to fix it.” The plan to “fix it” began with 24 consecutive days of radiation treatment, followed by a PET scan to benchmark the size of Otto’s tumor.

The next several months were a blur for her. Every 21 days she was admitted for a four-day inpatient stay, so chemotherapy could be administered through a 24-hour-a-day drip. But, her next PET scan produced promising results, giving Otto a boost of much needed encouragement.

“The spot in my thigh had shrunk to eight centimeters,” she says. “My treatment was working!” Otto has had a series of surgeries to remove the tumors in her leg and lungs. She also has PET scans on a regular basis so that Dr. Aboulafia and the rest of her care team can monitor her and act quickly, if and when it’s necessary to do so.

“When cancer is in the soft tissue, typically, it’s not painful. So it’s important for patients like Rachel to be scanned regularly so that we know what’s working, what’s not and where we need to make adjustments to the treatment plan,” Dr. Aboulafia explains.

medstar health bel air oncology center
Pallavi Kumar, MD

David Perry, MD

Patients who seek treatment for cancer at MedStar Franklin Square benefit from the medical center’s multidisciplinary approach. In Otto’s case, Dr. Aboulafia has collaborated closely with Radiation Oncologist David Perry, MD, and Medical Oncologist Pallavi Kumar, MD. Bringing together various clinical perspectives has contributed to Otto’s progress and outcomes.

“In many cases, patients who are diagnosed with synovia sarcoma undergo amputation. Fortunately, we were able to perform a salvage procedure for Rachel. Although she continues to battle her illness, she is now in remission,” Dr. Aboulafia adds.

Despite the obstacles she has faced, Otto remains optimistic, determined and focused on the most important things in her life. “When you find out you have cancer, it does define you. It’s no secret that I was sick. But I choose not to let it take over who I am,” says Otto, who is just 34 years old. “Being mom to Harper and Grayson is my greatest life accomplishment and making more time for family is my priority these days. We take a lot more pictures now and if the kids say they want to go somewhere or experience something new, we figure out a way to make it happen.”


The specialists at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center use the most advanced medical technologies available to treat bone and soft tissue tumors including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Each patient undergoes a thorough evaluation to determine the most effective treatment and many patients benefit from a combination of all three.


Sarcomas are cancerous growths in the soft tissues (muscles, nerves, fat or other nonbony tissues) of the body that occur most commonly in the arms, legs or abdomen. Traditionally, these rare bone and soft-tissue sarcomas were treated with amputation. But with modern techniques and, when patients are seen from the start at a specialized center, more than 90 percent can be treated without amputation using limb-sparing surgery.

Featured in Discover Summer 2017 Magazine. 

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MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center
National Center for Bone and Soft Tissue Tumors
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute
9103 Franklin Square Drive
Suite 2200
Baltimore, Maryland 21237

Orthopaedic Cancer Specialists

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