NEWS | March 24, 2020

Surgery gives Sacramento woman new lease on life

UC Davis Health pain specialist balances quality of life, customizes care


While many people joke about a fear of missing out, Mai Yang lived with that reality a year ago. Practically bedridden from debilitating back pain, Yang could not pick up her three young children from school, skipped family events and missed birthday parties.

Mai Yang, center, now enjoys life with her family again after an essential surgery at UC Davis Health. Mai Yang, center, now enjoys life with her family again after an essential surgery at UC Davis Health.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t even sit because the pain was so bad. Most of my time consisted of laying,” Yang said. “My daughter complained that we didn’t have mother-daughter bonding time. I felt sad and depressed.”

Yang lives with advanced colorectal cancer. Complications from the condition caused excruciating pain in her lower back. Working with her physician David Copenhaver, a pain medicine specialist and chief of the UC Davis Health Division of Pain Medicine, she tried numerous non-surgical options to tackle the challenge. None eased her pain.

“Dr. Copenhaver told me the surgery would give me back my life,” Yang said. “But it took a lot of convincing, because I’m so scared of surgery.”

Finally, Yang overcame those fears and said ‘yes’ to implanting an intrathecal pump that delivers targeted drugs to the spine in a way that’s more efficient and with fewer side effects than other strategies. The outpatient procedure took three hours, then Yang went home to recover. Three days later, her pain was gone.

“It happened quickly. I feel normal again, where I can do things with my kids and my husband,” Yang said.

Yang’s pump also requires fewer visits to the hospital or clinic for medicine refills, a benefit especially when health systems may be stretched thin. Copenhaver says that cancer doesn’t stop, even in the setting of a pandemic. It’s a physician’s role to strategically balance the risk with the reward of increased quality of life when opting to move forward with procedures.

“In these patients who are suffering from progressive cancer, it’s important to work individually with each patient to customize their care and shepherd them through a shared decision that’s best for them in the most sensible and thoughtful way we can,” Copenhaver said.

“I don’t ever remember a doctor being so nice and kind,” Yang said. “Whenever I was scared, he stayed there with me, comforted me and held my hand until I felt better. I’m really glad UC Davis Health is down the street.”

UC Davis Health is improving lives and transforming health care by providing excellent patient care, conducting groundbreaking research, fostering innovative, interprofessional education, and creating dynamic, productive partnerships with the community. For more information, visit