Kidney cancer survivor: Don’t delay seeing a doctor

Prior to being diagnosed with kidney cancer, I’d never heard of MD Anderson. But the more I researched my disease, the more I kept seeing Dr. Nizar Tannir’s name.

The type of kidney cancer I was diagnosed with — medullary renal cell carcinoma — is pretty rare, and most of the other treatment centers I contacted said they had no experience with it. They also told me to find a place offering clinical trials, which MD Anderson does.

When I discovered that Dr. Tannir worked at MD Anderson, I reached out by email to schedule an appointment. Not only did he have experience treating my exact type of cancer, but at the time, MD Anderson was one of the only — if not the only — places that was actively conducting research on it.

Fortunately, my kidney cancer treatment worked better than expected, so I never had to join a clinical trial. But it’s comforting to know that I could have, if I’d needed to.

My kidney cancer symptoms

I first learned I had cancer in April 2012. I’d been experiencing pain on the right side of my back and flank over about six months, and it was getting progressively worse. Eventually, it began radiating down into my groin. I also developed a cough that wouldn’t go away and started feeling a burning sensation in my lungs.

I finally went to a local emergency room when I noticed a lot of blood in my urine. The doctors there performed CT scans and found a mass in my right kidney. They suspected it was cancer. Chest X-rays showed that it had already spread to my lungs. I was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer.

My kidney cancer treatment

As far as I know, my family does not have a history of cancer, so I was in disbelief. I was only 26 at the time, and I played sports, worked out and was in great shape. I was also rarely sick, so finding out I had kidney cancer was a huge surprise.

I remember feeling kind of scared, too. That was the first time in my life when I couldn’t really defend myself against something threatening. But the knowledge and expertise of everyone at MD Anderson went a long way toward calming my fears. Everyone I encountered was confident, kind and caring.

To treat my kidney cancer, Dr. Tannir recommended six rounds of intravenous chemotherapy followed by surgery. Dr. José Karam removed the tumor, my right kidney and some adjacent lymph nodes in October 2012. Thankfully, none of the nodes showed evidence of cancer, but the cancer showed back up in my lungs just one month after the surgery.

I tried a pill form of chemo first to treat it, but after a few months, it became clear that wasn’t working, so I switched back to an IV regimen.

I finally finished treatment in 2014, and I’ve been in remission ever since. Now I only return to MD Anderson every six months for a check-up.

My life after kidney cancer

I’m still trying to adapt to life after cancer. I have some residual neuropathy in my feet, so my toes still feel slightly numb. My energy level also isn’t exactly back to where it used to be, but it’s better. And with only one kidney, I also have to be very aware of my blood pressure, so I can’t really participate in any contact sports. But I can still do most of the things that I used to do, so I’m grateful.

Today, I tell people not to try to explain away or dismiss any symptoms they might be having. Initially, I told myself my back pain was due to my mattress, but deep inside, I knew something was wrong. If I’d gone to the doctor when I first started having problems, I might have caught the cancer before it spread. So, don’t delay seeing a doctor if you think something’s wrong. You know your body better than anyone else.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.