How I turned my kidney and brain cancer diagnoses into something meaningful

When I was diagnosed with kidney cancer at age 29, I thought I had a life-changing story to tell. I was enjoying a great career and my young, growing family in Austin, Texas. When my doctor called and said I had a very large mass, I didn’t even know what that meant. I traveled to MD Anderson in Houston, where Dr. Surena Matin removed a butternut squash-sized tumor from my kidney, leaving me with a big scar on my abdomen. Four months later, I got back to work.

Little did I know, that was only the beginning of a wild and unexpected ride.

My second cancer diagnosis: brain cancer

Two years later, I was talking with some co-workers after a meeting. As we headed out, I turned to visit the coffee station. Just as I got my refill, my coffee cup dropped out of my hand, and I was completely frozen. I couldn’t move. Everyone was staring at me, confused. So was I. After a few moments, it passed, and I brushed it off.

Two days later, a good friend, who happened to be a doctor, told me to come in for a brain MRI as a precaution. “Let’s rule out the worst,” he said.

Unfortunately, it was what he feared: I had brain cancer. As we later learned, it was grade III oligodendroglioma, a primary brain tumor completely unrelated to my previous kidney cancer.  

Brain cancer is a long battle

I went back to MD Anderson, where neurosurgeon Dr. Sujit Prabhu worked his magic. I remember the awake craniotomy surgery like it was yesterday. When I woke up, I had a wrap around my head, a gnarly new 8-inch scar on my head and some nerve damage on my right side. But it got better – and I survived.

After my surgery, I stayed in the hospital for a month doing inpatient rehabilitation therapy and learning how to walk again. A ton of radiation and chemo would follow. Four years later, I still do outpatient physical therapy several days a week and probably always will. I drive with a disabled left foot accelerator device. But I can drive.

After my kidney cancer treatment, I thought I was well on my way to being cancer-free. But I know oligodendroglioma will probably always be with me. It has a relatively good prognosis as far as brain cancer goes, but no cure.

Finding perspective in therapy and strength in my family

During my tough times, I wondered what my family would do without me. So, I sought out therapy. That offered me great perspective to keep from worrying about the future.

Speaking of family, my wife Carrie lost her mom to cancer when she was a child. Carrie has always exhibited nothing but strength in overcoming such a traumatic experience, and she’s carried that fighter mentality over into my battle.

She was eight months pregnant when I had kidney cancer surgery and eight months pregnant again when I had brain tumor surgery. I don’t know how, but she somehow took care of our three small daughters and me, and I don’t remember her ever complaining. But I hope she did. It would only be natural. She had it worse than me. No question: I am still here because of her strength.

Doing something meaningful

When I was laid up at MD Anderson re-learning how to walk, I was struck with an overwhelming desire to help others. I was the primary income earner for my family, so being out of work was scary, and we were fortunate to have a good support network. After 14 months of treatment, I started a charitable foundation with the help of a good friend, to support other cancer patients who struggled like me and my family.

I think the best lesson I’ve learned is that my 65-hour work weeks weren't going to happen anymore. The late-night bids and replies to emails became less of an immediate concern because my kids’ bedtime songs were more important. Giving to others became more of a priority than making money.

Cancer affects all of us in different ways, but the one thing we can all do is care for each other. I now spend my time caring for my family and leading my foundation because the most meaningful thing I can do is inspire someone else affected by cancer.

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