Kidney Cancer’s subtle symptoms and why you should listen to your body

Hospital wristband

I will always remember when it dawned on me that doctors were taking my case seriously. It was the end of September 2014, and I had just been admitted into hospital. I was three weeks into a brilliant new job as news editor of the ambitious Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, and in my mind I was desperate to make a good impression – even if my body wasn’t.

When I had accepted the job I really did think I was fine. Yes, I had lost weight and was struggling with my energy levels – but I just thought I was unfit. So it was a big shock when the call from Warwick Hospital came.

I certainly didn’t think I warranted the ensuite room they had given me. It was situated next to dozens of old and frail people who all looked genuinely ill, while I was sat in bed all day happily watching DVDs and reading magazines. Nevertheless, the doctors seemed worried. A couple of days of blood tests followed before a CT Scan eventually revealed a four-inch tumour in my right kidney.

My GP had got me admitted at the behest of my dad, who was so worried about my ‘wasting away’ that he called and asked for an appointment without my knowledge. I had already been put on a two-week wait for a cancer check-up, but I just put that down to the worst-case scenario stuff I thought doctors did.

As well as the weight loss – a stone in under 12 months – I had instances of side pain and a persistent cough. I also felt emotionally flat and would need to urinate all the time. That last one was simply because I drank so much. During one of my last days at the Herald I measured my water intake. It was more than five litres. And even then, I was too busy banging away at my keyboard to bother quenching my thirst.

Another was fatigue, and I had rightly become a target for jokes at Monday night five-a-side. I would trot on as a substitute, only to trot back off again after a few jogs and a shot that looped harmlessly over the fence into the next field. I was always secretly annoyed that my decent ability and energy levels as a kid had seemingly disappeared after three years of university, but I assumed a lack of fitness was the root cause.

However, one of the other, more obvious symptoms that I had to – and still do – put up with is night sweats. I can’t remember when they first happened, but it would just be the odd night that I woke up and found myself in a bed completely soaked from head to toe.

Nowadays I often wake up from strange, vivid dreams covered in sweat – especially from my waist down (and yes lads, it’s definitely sweat) – before I head to the loo, shivering. This process often continues for up to three times before I finally wake up for good. I’ve got used to it now and it doesn’t really bother me. The shivers especially can be an almost enjoyable experience.

A slightly chubbier version of me - from 2012 - before the weight loss kicked in.

I’ve never been chubby but this is a slightly chubbier version of me – from 2012 – before the weight loss kicked in.

It’s actually quite funny. Back when the doctors were left mystified by what was wrong, they checked me for everything and on one occasion joked I might be going through the menopause! Night sweats, loss of appetite, reduced muscle mass, fatigue, concentration issues. I was almost the perfect fit. On another occasion, it was pregnancy – back ache, needing to urinate more. Thankfully, I don’t think a physical examination was required before they ruled them both out.

But the truth was that lots and lots of small symptoms had built up over weeks, even months – yet I still maintained that nothing was wrong. My family, however, sensed otherwise and ultimately, they were right.

If you google Symptoms of Kidney Cancer, the first bit of advice you get is always blood in your urine. Yet the first time I experienced it properly wasn’t until I was waiting to see the Pre-Operation Team at Coventry Hospital, a few days before surgery. It showed just how much of a danger the disease can be, that even a four-inch tumour didn’t produce the most obvious symptom.

My GP had found a miniscule amount of blood during a dipstick test months earlier, when I had gone to him with severe pain in my right side that had caused me to leave work early and have a few days off. But, understandably, he assumed an otherwise fit and healthy 24-year-old was simply suffering from an infection, and he sent me on my way with some anti-biotics. The pain cleared within days.

It wasn’t until the hospital appointment that it happened for real, and it was genuinely scary – even if nurses insisted there was nothing dangerous about it.

Leading into the big day my biggest fear was regarding the cough I had developed six to eight weeks previously. Surgeons were about to cut me open from below my belly button to my diaphragm so I knew my stomach wouldn’t be in a good way, and that it wouldn’t be pretty if the cough was still there when I woke up.

The most frustrating thing about the cough was the fact I had started the new job. The last thing you want to do when working in a quietly busy newsroom is annoy the hell out of your new colleagues. Thankfully, despite all my fears, I woke up after surgery and it had cleared. My consultant reckoned it had first been created by hormones or something similar.

New symptoms seem to come and go these days, with chest infections and sore throats being the main issues. I get the odd day of nausea from a particular medication I’m on, and I’m always lacking energy – but thankfully I am able to live a pretty normal life right now – even after the cancer returned a few months ago.

However, I do sometimes regret not acting on the downward trends that had impacted on my life in the months running up to my diagnosis. If I had pushed doctors, been more honest about how I really felt, or listened to the people around me, then maybe I’d have got an earlier diagnosis. It’s a lesson for other people – if your body is trying to tell you something, you gotta listen. It’s probably nothing, but probably just isn’t good enough!

*UPDATE – This blog was written before I started my IL-2 treatment and while I was on medication that had side effects. Since finishing the treatment, and coming off the meds, I haven’t experienced a nightsweat or had a chest infection!

Matt Bates

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