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How I Discovered I Have Kidney Cancer

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Dealing with Kidney Cancer

Self Growth

How I Discovered I Have Kidney Cancer

September 3, 2018

by: Rachel Rhee

Unbelievable that I am creating cancer content on this site. Hopefully there won’t be too many posts and I can close this chapter soon… The meaning of all of this is what I’m currently trying to understand. Some days I believe that my purpose is to use this hardship and difficult circumstance and turn this into an opportunity to connect and help others. Other times I get so down and constantly find myself questioning “Why me? Did I do something bad? Am I a terrible person?”…

On Sunday, August 26 I remember waking up early because there was a community garden meeting at 8:30am. It’s where all my neighbors who have a garden plot come together once a quarter, clean up the garden and talk about plans for how we want to treat our crops for the following season. I remember feeling very drained that morning. I had gone to the beach the previous day so I thought perhaps I felt really tired from that, or maybe it’s just because waking up early on a weekend morning isn’t fun.

The meeting lasted all morning – we pulled up weeds, raked up leaves, and got to know each other. At around 10am I started feeling even more tired though, even after a cup of matcha, so I excused myself from the group and went back up to my loft so I can rest. I gave myself time to nap a little and then I had to drive down to Orange County because August 26 also happens to be my dad’s birthday.

We had a family lunch together and I stayed around the house to just spend some quality time with my parents. My intent was to come back up to LA early that evening but I still felt exhausted so I ended up sleeping at my parents and decided I would go drive back home in the morning. I had no idea that this extreme fatigue I felt all day was actually a symptom of my cancer.

I wake up naturally each morning around 6am and Monday was no different. I got up, went to the bathroom, had a couple sips of water, read a few articles on my CNN app and decided to get a few more minutes of sleep, it was around 6:30 by this point. But at roughly 7am, I woke up abruptly with sharp pains in my lower right abdomen. A lot of extreme cramping, to the point where I couldn’t stand up straight. Definitely worse than any menstrual cramp I had ever experienced. I held onto my abdomen, with my back hunched over, and walked to the bathroom. Within the few seconds it took me to get to the bathroom, I started getting very nauseous. Once I got to the toilet, I immediately had to throw up. Nothing came out except for bile and the water I had just had a few minutes prior. I usually feel better after I’ve had to vomit in the past but this time was different. Just as I got up from the floor, with the sharp cramping I was experiencing in my abdomen continuing to poke at me like sharp knives, I started feeling sharp pains in my lower right back. At this point I used my cell to call my mom who was downstairs and moaned through the phone for her to come upstairs. She couldn’t even understand me through all my groaning but she knew something was wrong.

As I waited for my mom to come upstairs I started sweating profusely. I took off all my clothes because I just felt so suffocated. I didn’t want anything touching me. Imagine the most intense, sweaty spin class you’ve taken – that amount of sweat was on my bathroom floor in the matter of seconds.

While still sweating, I had a sudden urge to go pee and when I got up to flush, I noticed the whole toilet was a dark red. Almost like the color of coca-cola with a red tint. I thought maybe I had started my cycle which would make sense with all of my cramping. Except, I also threw up. And I also had extreme lower back pain. There was just too much going on for this to just be my period.

When my mom came upstairs, she hadn’t seen the blood, so when I told her, I’m not sure she completely understood. So she said that since I had stomach cramping, I should lie down and she would give me a heating pad. She said put the heating pad on my stomach for 30 minutes, put an acupressure ball on my lower back pain and it will get better slowly.

Well, it didn’t after a few minutes and at this point I was bawling in pain. I had to use the bathroom again, even though I had just gone, and when I did I saw the same intense red and I knew that for sure this was not ok and I needed to go to the ER.

As I was getting ready to go to the ER with my mom, Tiger Lily knew I was behaving differently but I don’t think she knew quite yet that I was so sick because sleepy her was still in bed for most of this time. When I went downstairs, Tiger Lily came down too – she just loves following me first thing in the morning. She saw her favorite squeaky toy across the room, ran for it and brought it back to me with her cute little butt up in the air and her tail wagging. We love playing together in the morning. She dropped the toy in front of me but I was hunched over on the sofa and couldn’t throw it and at this point she knew I was sick so she jumped up on the sofa to sit right next to me, flesh to fur. I felt so bad to worry her. My poor Tiger Lily. 🙁

When my mom pulled up to the ER, someone was out front to give me a wheelchair and help me to the intake area. After describing my symptoms, the nurse said that I likely had kidney stones and after a CT scan they’d be able to prescribe me some medication to take at home and the stones would pass in a few days. I’ve never had kidney stones before so I had no idea that this is what it could be like!

What seemed like hours and hours later, I finally got taken to do a scan but it took a while for a doctor to come see me with the results. I know things can move slowly in a hospital since there are so many patients, but it felt abnormally slow. A doctor finally came and asked me ‘Have you ever had any surgeries? Have you ever had any tumors?’ I did have a benign tumor on my breast that was removed years ago so I let her know this and she finally said:

We found a large abnormal mass on your right kidney. You don’t have kidney stones. You need to stay in the hospital so we can monitor your vitals and you need to see a urologist today.

I didn’t quite know how to process that. An abnormal mass. What was she trying to tell me?

I was wheeled to my hospital room and was put on morphine immediately because the pain medication they used on me in the ER was wearing off.

I remember sleeping for most of the afternoon – morphine makes me sleepy! And finally I was taken to get another CT scan except this time with contrast. This means that a dye would be injected into my IV and this would help my doctor see exactly where the outline of the mass and kidney are. Without it everything just looks very jumbly in a scan. Contrast helps doctors see the details.

If you’ve never done a CT scan, you basically lie down on a moving bed and you shift in and out of an open cylindrical machine. The actual scan is nothing to be afraid of but for me, as I was waiting for the technician to set up the machine, I remember feeling very afraid. Afraid I was going to die soon. I didn’t know what they would find. The only thing I knew was that I had an “abnormal mass”. Looking up at the fluorescent lights of the cold X-ray room, my exact thought was:

There are so many more walks I want to go on with Tiger Lily.

With the CT scan w/ contrast, the radiologist and urologist were able to see that the mass was approximately 8cm and it spanned nearly the entire kidney. They also took scans of my chest area and pelvic region to ensure that there weren’t any other abnormalities and I’m beyond grateful that there weren’t. The immediate solution the urologist gave to me though is that I need surgery. No biopsy could be taken, I just need to remove it asap. This doctor in particular just outright told me

This is kidney cancer.

Way to soften it up for a patient…

After the initial diagnosis, I went to see many different urologists and finally found a doctor I feel comfortable with and who I really feel cares about me. My surgery is set for September 11 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and I am beyond anxious. A part of me wants to have the surgery sooner so I can remove the tumor quick, but a part of me is scared to have it sooner because what if there’s a complication…that means I have that many fewer days here… It’s such a morbid thought, I know, but it’s a real feeling and fear I have. Anything can happen when you’re under. There’s so much I want to do in life and I’m just not ready! My family needs me. My Tiger Lily needs me.

Currently, I feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, and scared. I’m reminding myself to focus on the good and that I have so much to be grateful for – that it has not metastasized and it is contained to my kidney. By what it sounds like from doctors, it is not stage 4. I have a loving family. I have a loving community of friends both in real life and around the world through Instagram. I have the cutest, most playful dog ever. I guess I know I have so much in my life, which is why I don’t want to leave it… I’m trusting that God has a greater plan for me.

And a note to future Rachel after you wake up and fully recover from surgery: Stop worrying so much. Chill out. Breathe. You are way more tough than you ever realized. Do something with this struggle to help others reconnect with the strength that is inside each of us.

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  1. Amanda Howard says:

    Thank you so much for being so open and sharing with me/is what happened and how you are feeling. I wish there was so much more I could do for you but know I’m constantly thinking and praying for you! I know you’ve got this! ????

  2. Maura says:

    Hi! I found your site through Jess Kirby and I’m so glad I did. First, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Secondly, thank you for being so open about your experience. It takes a strong and brave person to share any emotional stage of life but stages dealing with anything health related are particularly difficult. My mom was recently diagnosed with kidney cancer too (8cm to her right kidney) and presented with similar symptoms. Luckily, she too didn’t have anything else on her other scans and I took a sigh of relief. I don’t know if this will be helpful to you but she tolerated surgery well (she’s in her late 50s!) and was out of the hospital quickly (2 days!). She’s taken time off from work & has been letting herself heal – taking things day by day. She just had her 3 month post op scans and we’re anxiously awaiting the results though both her surgeon and medical oncologist have been very positive so far. Sorry for the rambling but I want to offer up something encouraging! Know what you share is important and is touching other people! I wish you all the best and will be sending good juju to you on your surgery day!! Xo Maura

    • Rachel says:

      Oh my gosh thank you so much for this message! And I’m so happy to hear that your mom is doing well! Please keep me updated on how her 3 month scan looks. I had surgery just 4 days ago and the hospital also discharged me 2 nights after surgery. The doctor thinks it’s better for patients to heal at home and the healing process will go by quicker too being in a more comfortable environment. I don’t disagree! My tumor was also 8cm but thankfully it all got taken out for me too. I heard it’s much more rare for females to get kidney cancer – we just happen to be the lucky ones!

      Thank you so much for reaching out and the support! Wishing you and your family many many healthy and happy years to share together 🙂 xo

  3. Anna says:

    Hi Rachel, I found your blog because I am considering leaving my current consulting job. I was googling around and found your blogpost. I am very sorry about what your are going through. I am glad you had a successful surgery and hope you are on your way of recovering! Wishing you all the best!

  4. Rich Dunn says:

    When I heard that Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii had been diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer, I tried my best to get ahold of a staffer who would allow me walk them through some groundbreaking science at the University of Nevada that points the way to a nutritional cure for cancer. It’s very simple, completely safe, and amazingly effective — I know because I cured myself using it, as have a handful of others.

    After nine months, still no response from Sen. Hirono’s staff, so I’ve decided to start reaching out to others who might be able to benefit from it. I even give out my cell phone number (775-434-8783) and promise to explain what’s involved in detail to anyone interested. I know from experience that it can’t be explained understandably in writing — people almost always misunderstand it at first blush, though emails are useful for follow-ups.

    So if anybody reading this knows someone who might be able to benefit from it, feel free to give me a call or email me a number with the best time to call you back. I’m very busy and don’t have any time to fritter away in idle conversation, but if sharing this important information ends up saving a life, I’m happy to make time for it.

  5. Larry Weaver says:

    Thank you for discussing kidney cancer. My wife has been showing strange signs of symptoms that might be kidney cancer. We will be sure to visit a doctor right away to get checked for kidney cancer.

    • Rachel says:

      Yes of course, any time. I hope she gets checked soon! I am sending you my thoughts that it is not kidney cancer. Please let me know though if there’s any questions you may have.

  6. Lori says:

    How are you doing now Rachel?

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