Diagnosis to Physical Recovery

This is an article that I’ve wanted to write for some time now. However, now that I’m writing it, I realize how difficult it is to do so. Cancer is a very personal subject to those that have it, or that have had it. Each person’s journey is there’s alone to some extent because there are so many different factors. Perhaps I am writing this more for me as a cathartic exercise. But my hope is that it will help someone out there that is having a tough time coming out the other side of a cancer diagnosis. So, for whatever value I can bring to someone else, here’s how surviving cancer made me better.

In this specific article, I’m going to focus on my physical recovery from cancer during the first year after my diagnosis. In my opinion, the first year is crucial. You aren’t the same person you were just a few months before. Certainly, your body has undergone some changes. Getting it back to where it used to be is a huge part of getting your ‘normal’ life back.  That’s was this article is going to share.

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Diet, Mind Health, and Mind Set

My wife, Shirley and I have significantly changed our diet after my cancer diagnosis as well. I talk about that in How to Have Optimal Health and related articles. There’s no question that cancer changes you mentally also. You think differently. Your perspective changes. You value parts of your life differently. That topic will be covered in other articles that will be linked from here. The sheer volume of information on these aspects of post-cancer life might be better suited for a book. But we write a blog. So, I’ll do the best I can to link all these articles together for you. If you’re dealing with or have dealt with cancer…kick its ass my friend!

The Kidney Cancer Diagnosis

One Thursday night in October of 2017 Shirley and I were watching TV. I got up to go to the bathroom and discovered blood in my urine. Lot’s of it. The water in the toilet was very red. I guess maybe I was in shock because I don’t remember panicking about it. Of course, I knew it wasn’t good news.

After seeing my primary care doctor and being referred to a urologist, I was sent to get a CT Scan. Then Shirley and I went to see the urologist to get the results. This was about 15 minutes that I’ll never forget. My urologist popped her head in the room and said, “We need to talk”. I think she was surprised to have looked at the scan results and seen what she did. Because to look at me you would see a very healthy 60-year old.

Let me share at this point that I feel very fortunate to have been seeing this particular urologist, Nicole Szell. She’s young, she’s smart, and she’s to the point but not in an abrasive way. I just liked her and so did Shirley. She has a way about her that gave me the confidence that she knew exactly what she was doing. I trusted her immediately. I can’t say that about most of the doctors I’ve come across in my life. Let me also mention she’s very pretty which doesn’t hurt the situation.

Dr. Szell proceeded to share that I had a 13-centimeter (about 5 inches) mass around my left kidney. By the way, why is it that in the U.S. we’re educated in inches, and then when it comes to important things like this they want to talk in centimeters? I had to find a converter on the internet to know what 13 centimeters was.

Dr. Nicole Szell assisted with surgey
Nicole Szell, D.O.

Do You Have Any Questions?

She wasn’t ready to give me a kidney cancer diagnosis yet because she couldn’t tell from the scan. But she was scheduling surgery for as soon as possible to remove both the mass and the kidney, that most likely had not been functioning for a long time.

When she was done explaining all this to me she asked, "Do you have any questions?" I couldn’t think of any right away. I couldn’t think at all. I was processing what she just told me. I had cancer. I had to have major surgery. My life was being altered. Any plans I had for the next few weeks and months just got put on the back burner.

After a while, I did ask her if I could live with one kidney. Of course, she explained that some people are born with one kidney and that yes, I could live with just one kidney. That’s the only question I asked.

I was sitting on what I’ll call the doctor's table. Shirley was across the room in a chair. How I remember things is that Shirley immediately broke down. I got up and went over to comfort her. When I was attempting to be strong for my wife, I got extremely light-headed. I felt like I was going to pass out, so I went back and laid on the table. Shirley then came over and hugged me. I am so thankful she was there. I am so thankful to be married to her.

We were both obviously in shock. Our world had just changed forever and the outcome of all that was impossible to foresee. There were too many possibilities and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it except go in and have this surgery.

The rest of the time in that doctor’s office was hazy at best. I remember the doctor asking if we wanted to see the scan. Shirley did but I really didn’t. I could never see anything on those damned things anyway (x-rays, ultrasounds, etc.). They always seemed like a big blur. But I reluctantly went with Shirley to look at it. There was just this big blob on one side of me that didn’t look like the other. I guess that was the reason I was going to have this surgery. Good enough. Let’s go home.

The Wait Until the Surgery

On the ride home I had a moment. I’m not sure where it came from. We were quiet most of the few-mile ride. But I remember telling Shirley with absolute conviction that we were going to be fine. That I was going to be fine. It’s like I knew it ahead of time although I had no facts or logic to back it up. I didn’t know kidney cancer survival rates. Heck, I didn’t even know if it was cancer. But at least for a few minutes, I had a calming confidence come over me. Was I just trying to help Shirley deal with the moment? Or, was this energy from the universe letting me know that I would indeed survive?

The next couple of weeks before the surgery was a roller coaster ride. Mostly up, but a couple of low points for sure. The weekend after the diagnosis we were due to be in Atlanta for a company convention. In fact, we left to drive the 8-hour trip the very next day. Most people would have stayed home. To be around hundreds of people and not know anything other than I need to have this surgery was going to be difficult. But we’re not most people.

Stay Away from the Scary Place

It was the best thing for me at the time. It made me stay positive and focus on the moment. That weekend I was constantly bringing my thoughts from the unknown to the people that were there and information that was being conveyed at the convention. It kept me away from the scary place that my mind seemed to want to go.

I held it together well I must say. No one knew a thing except for a few people that needed to know. I done good. It wasn’t until the ride back on Monday about 5 miles from home that I broke down. I guess that I had held it together for the last 5 days and I just needed to release it. That was one of few moments during the wait for the surgery when my roller coaster was at the bottom.

One of the other times was when the urologist called to tell me some information that I don’t recall anymore. Except that I now had some questions. I asked her if she thought this was cancer. She gave me an answer that was very professional as she didn’t really know. But I did appreciate that she got real with me and did say that likely it was. That put a whole new slant on things because now the question is, had it spread beyond the kidney? We wouldn’t know for a few more days.

During that time, a friend sent me a book called, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.  This book is not what I consider easy reading. It's very deep and makes you think after reading each paragraph, it seems. But it got me to focus on only what I knew, and what I could control. And, stay away from, as much as possible, worrying about the unknown. It was incredibly helpful as I waited for the surgery.

The Kidney Cancer Surgery

If you’ve ever had major surgery, you know how it goes. You show up way too early in the morning. You sit around a waiting room with other people that are getting surgery that day. It’s amazing how many surgeries are performed in a day! They call you in and put you in a hospital gown. They try and make you comfortable because they know on some level you’re wigging out. Then they give you the happy drug and you mellow out and the world is good regardless of what is about to happen. They wheel you in, put something over your mouth or in your vein, and you wake up in a hospital room sometime later that day.

Incision and Staples from Kidney Removal Surgery
Incision and Staples from Kidney Cancer Surgery -Radical Left Nephrectomy

I had what they call a radical left nephrectomy. Basically, the mass was so large they couldn’t remove it with minimally invasive techniques. They had to open me up like a “can of tuna”. The incision starts on my left side and goes around to my back. It’s about 7 inches in length. To me, that’s like a can of tuna. The surgery lasted about 2 hours.

Good News and Great News

The urologist showed up sometime after I woke up and told me that she was confident they got the entire mass that was surrounding the kidney. Although, because of the size of it, they had to remove part of one of my ribs to get it out whole. They wouldn’t know what the mass specifically was until they got the lab results back which could take up to a week. So, that was good news. Now it was just about getting home and recovering. They released me 2 days later. I demonstrated to those that made such decisions that I could sufficiently eat, go to the bathroom, and walk. That’s about all I’d be doing for the next several weeks.

I got a phone call about a week later informing me that it was Stage 2 renal cancer. Of course, they used bigger words in the full description. But what I got out of it was that stage 2 is still contained within the specific area. In other words, it hadn’t spread yet. Phew! That’s great news!

I was put on a schedule of getting scanned every 3 months for a year, then extending it to every 6 months, then eventually once a year. When they see that I am cancer-free at the end of 5 years they stop the scans. Perfect. The surgery is over. The cancer is out of my body. We have a plan. Let’s get busy!

Cancer Surgery Recovery Begins

I’ve got a life to live and things to do. And, I most likely have less time left to do it. I remember being told by the urologist that, based on the type of cancer and how the surgery went, I have an 80% chance of living 10 more years. I guess that’s pretty good, but it did create a sense of urgency for me. But hold on big guy. You just had major surgery. You’ve got some serious recovering to do.

The next 6 weeks were somewhat fuzzy. I believe that’s because of the opioid pain medication. I absolutely needed it for the 1st few weeks. The pain from the several inch-incision on my left side was intense. Every movement was slow, and it hurt. Propping myself up on the bed was painful. Getting out of bed was excruciating. Walking wasn’t painful if I went extremely slowly. But damn, if I turned my body to look at something or change direction, it hurt big time.

It’s Good to Have Good Care

I need to mention at this point that my wife was incredible. Shirley is one of those people that take good care of other people. When my mother was diagnosed with dementia and died just a few months later, Shirley took care of her day and night. We had a baby monitor in our bedroom so that Shirley could hear when my Mom needed her. Unfortunately, I was on a business trip when my Mom passed but Shirley was right there with her. I can’t ever thank her enough for that.

She was just as caring for me during my recovery. While I was in the hospital, she got the house set up for me. She bought a special pillow to help me sit up in bed. She got an extra-large bathmat for the shower so I wouldn’t slip and fall. She checked on me, fed me, made sure I took my meds when I was supposed to, and took me for my mandatory walks around the neighborhood. How the hell I would have done it without her, I don’t know. The universe blessed me with my own special angel.

When I first got home, I was in a state of gratitude. I had just dodged a missile. I realized how fortunate I was. The cancer wasn’t in my body anymore. They had gotten it all out. I didn’t need to have chemotherapy or take any kind of medication at all. Well, except for the pain meds. My prognosis was good. I would live for several more years at worst.

Pain from Kidney Cancer Surgery

But after a few weeks of Hulu and Netflix, I started to get impatient with my recovery. I was walking better but come on! I was still walking like I was 90, not 60. And, as time went on and I looked in the mirror every muscle in my body was atrophying. My shoulders, arms, chest, legs, were all looking skinny. My body looked old and weak. And, yes, I was very weak.

I would try to go out in the living room and spend time with Shirley watching TV. But getting up and down from the couch was a chore. I would have to turn on my side and slide down to kneel on the floor. Then use my arms to push up off the couch to a standing position. All of which had to be done very slowly.

After a couple of months, I’m walking OK. But sitting was a challenge for any length of time. We bought one of those stands that you put on a desk to raise my computer so I could get some work done. But then standing for long periods caused back pain. The bottom line was that I had back pain from the moment I woke up to the time I went to sleep.

If you think about getting cut into on the side of your lower abdomen, what are they cutting through to get to your inside? Skin, fat, muscle, nerves, and whatever else. Cutting through the nerves caused the greatest discomfort. I was numb, not just where the incision was, but my whole side down into the top of my leg and thigh.

When the nerves started to heal or develop new connections, or do what nerves do, it caused intense shooting pain from my side down through my leg. This lasted for about 18 to 20 months. As I’m writing this, I realize that I haven’t felt that for several months now. Although the left side of my stomach area still isn’t completely unnumbed.

Be Very Careful with Your Pain Medication

Nonetheless, the pain was getting a little better. But I discovered that I was beginning to have a relationship with my pain medication. I really liked how it made me feel beyond helping with the pain. It numbed my whole experience and made it easier to watch hours of TV and be completely OK with not doing anything else. I realized that I was becoming at least slightly addicted to the stuff.

I needed it still because the pain would keep me awake at night still. But I was getting concerned that I was consciously making a decision to take another pill during the day when I really didn’t need it. Just because I liked the feeling it gave me. After several weeks I flushed my remaining pain meds down the toilet. I wasn’t going to let these damn things stop me from coming back better than ever.

Working Out After Surgery – 4 Months Post Surgery

I can see where an experience like this could slow someone for not just months, but years. I have always been into sports, working out, feeling strong, my body looking good. As well, my personality is to take on challenges with gusto. I get impatient when results don’t meet the schedule I set for myself. If someone isn’t made up the same way I can see how they might just take those pain meds for a lot longer and ride out the recovery period. For better or worse that just isn’t me. I wanted to start working out again.

I must also admit I had a little help with my motivation. If you've been reading some other articles on our blog you know we're a big fan of nootropics. And, we're a big fan of coffee! If you are too you owe it to yourself to check out Happy Coffee. We'll even send you a 2-day sample to try.

When I announced my plans to Shirley, she was highly concerned that I wasn’t ready for workouts. Yet she knew she had to manage my personality at the same time. Don’t discourage me, but make sure I wasn’t getting crazy. This has been a component of our relationship for 25 years now. I have the big plans, the crazy ideas, the ‘why the heck not’ attitude. Shirley has had to walk a fine line between not dampening my enthusiasm, but at the same time, making sure I maintain some semblance of realism.

But I was not to be dissuaded in this case. I broke out the dumbbells from the garage. I made up a workout routine that was a minimized version of what we learned from a personal trainer we had worked with in San Diego 6 years prior, Kelly Cunningham.

Shirley had met Kelly through a business networking group and became friends. After my Mom died Kelly moved into her “granny flat” so she lived right in our home basically. She would come over a few mornings a week and got us ripped, or as ripped as we could get at our age. Kelly put us through CrossFit workouts which I absolutely loved. I was bound and determined to get back to that. This skinny ass old man’s body was going to transform into something I could be proud of again, damn it!

Don’t Go It Alone

Here was the only problem. The surgery affected my back. Your back is everything when moving much less, lifting weights. You may have guessed. Shirley was right, sort of. My back wasn’t anywhere near ready for the type of workout I was trying to do. I made it worse and resorted to seeing my chiropractor and a massage therapist. I was very disappointed.

7 Months After Surgery

After going in for adjustments and massages for a few visits my chiropractor, Erika Meister suggested that I go see a guy that had started a unique type of gym in our area. His name is Dan Shipman and he calls his place Full Torque Fitness. I went in for a consultation and explained to Dan about the surgery and my unsuccessful attempt at self -rehabilitation. He put me through some movements to assess where I was at. He asked me to touch my toes. That was a joke. I could barely get passed my knees. I had very little flexibility with my back and virtually no strength anywhere.

He quickly came to a conclusion about my immediate needs and it was brilliant! Maybe not to him or people in his business. But to me, it was like he just came up with the theory of gravity. He told me that because my lower back was still in recovery, I shouldn’t be trying to strengthen it. The muscle, tissue, nerves, etc. needed to mend. But what I should be doing is targeting the areas around and that support my lower back. Let’s strengthen those and get some flexibility back in the rest of my body. Yes! Let’s do that. When can we start?

Dan runs his gym primarily himself. He has interns that help out, but Dan is the main man. He has a maximum of 2 to 3 clients at a time in there. Only 2 if Dan is alone. You get personal attention and workouts designed just for you. Of course, you pay more. But for someone like me, it’s well worth it. I was stoked!

I went to see Dan twice a week for 3-4 months. Dan had me out of back pain with 2 weeks, maybe sooner. Within weeks he had me doing squats with weight again and all sorts of exercises I was used to. But mainly it was stuff that I had never done before that was bringing me back to my old self pretty quickly. I highly recommend you visit his YouTube Channel. He even has a phone app that will guide you through some of his workouts. If you can’t tell, I’m a huge Dan Shipman fan!

Dan’s gym concept is not about people paying a monthly fee and coming whenever they want or have the time. It’s about a focus on a goal and getting it done. And, learning maintenance that you can do yourself at home or at your local Planet Fitness. So, I worked with Dan for a few months.

11 Months After Surgery – I Had a Setback

If you’re recovering from surgery or a major accident, you’re going to have some setbacks. I’m telling you this because I experienced one, not because I’m so brilliant. Along the way, as I was working out with Dan, I developed a different type of back pain. It wasn’t in my lower back. And, it wasn’t on my left side, the side of the surgery. It was mid-way up my back on the right side. What? I had never had back pain like this before or in this location. It didn’t spasm like other back pain I’ve had.

My head quite quickly went to my remaining kidney. Where the heck is my kidney anyway? This is where Google can be your worst nightmare. After identifying where my kidney was, I got quite concerned that this lone organ that was doing the work of two, was having a problem.

So, I went to my new urologist. It’s not that I didn’t like my previous one. On the contrary, I loved her. But we changed insurance companies. The insurance company that I had when I went for the surgery raised their rates to a ridiculous amount for the following year. Unfortunately, Dr. Szell’s medical group did not take my new insurance. Thus, a new urologist.

This doctor examined me and had me do some blood work and a urine test. He told me that everything looked good but that if the pain didn’t go away in 30-days he’d have me do another scan. I had just done an MRI 2 months before and it was clear. Well, the pain didn’t go away, I had the scan again, and it was clear again. No cancer or any problems with the kidney.

Take a Break if You Have to

So, what do I do? The pain was affecting my workouts, getting in and out of the car, sleeping, and more. The only answer that I came up with was to stop working out. Which I did. And the pain finally subsided after a few weeks. But I didn’t start working out again right away. In fact, I laid off from workouts of any kind for the next 6 months. Shirley and I rode our bikes a lot, but it wasn’t satisfying my desire to get back in shape. By the way, riding bikes together is awesome. We’ll share a lot more of that in our Fitness & Activities section.

But all in all, it was a good first year. I wasn’t where I ultimately wanted to be physically and certainly not where I was before the surgery, but things could have been a lot worse. In another article, I will share what I discovered in year 2 that indeed made me physically better than I was before cancer.

Review - How Surviving Kidney Cancer Made Me Better

In review, for anyone dealing with recovery whether it involves surgery or not, is to be as patient as you can while pushing yourself as much as you can. It’s a fine line. As you saw I got out of balance a bit and injured myself. But it was minor. We’re all going to get out of balance at times. It just depends on what side of the balance line you want to be. I want to push.

Diet Information

There is more to how surviving kidney cancer made me better than just working out, of course. Shirley and I radically changed our diet even though we didn’t eat poorly prior to cancer. I’ve mentioned that we discuss what led up to that and what we did in the article How to Have Optimal Health.

We learned about digestive health, gut health. We now realize that foods that we have always been told should be staples in one’s diet could be causing some of the problems we are having. We now believe sugar is some of the worst stuff you can put in your body because parasites thrive on it. Parasites, as you might imagine, don’t do us a lot of good. And, processed foods are filled with sugar.

To Learn More About Gut Health Visit How to Have Optimal Health

Mind Health and Mindset

Another major part of how surviving kidney cancer made me better is what we’ve learned about mind health and mindset. Those, by the way, are 2 different things. Mind health is what you can do from a dietary standpoint to give your brain the tools it needs to create more neurons and neurotransmitters, and to get those neurotransmitters firing on all cylinders. (If you think that I just misspoke there about creating more neurons, more brain cells, scientists now believe that indeed we do create more throughout our life.) When your brain is working optimally it wards off disease with ease. So, mind health is a vital component to a long and happy life.

Mindset is an incredibly powerful, and I don’t believe yet completely understood, topic. I think most of us believe that if you think good thoughts good things will happen. Napoleon Hill was perhaps one of the first modern authors to make that concept popular. But he didn’t explain why that is true. I read Think and Grow Rich many times and every time felt like I just had to have faith in what he was saying is true.

The Major Change with Mindset – Quantum Physics

But quantum physics has changed all that. Now science has stepped in and has given us a logical, albeit complex, explanation as to why our subconscious mind is so powerful. And, how it literally can control outcomes and influence what happens in the future. We will be diving into that topic in future articles as well.

A Great Book on the Topic: Becoming Supernatural by Dr. Joe Dispenza

A last word on mindset as it relates to getting a cancer diagnosis. I believe that I got through this whole experience reasonably well for 2 reasons. The first is that I had a “good” cancer. In other words, it wasn’t late stages and it hadn’t spread. I don’t know how I wouldn’t have handled myself if the prognosis would have been different.

The other reason is that I’ve been working on my mindset for many years. I have surrounded myself with like-minded people. I married someone with an incredibly strong will and mindset. I was as prepared as I could have been to deal with something like this. That’s one of the reasons we feel so strongly about his blog. If we can help people create a stronger mindset before they get tough news, they’ll be better equipped to maintain it, and potentially influence the outcome. If the never get that news, all the better.