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I Was Diagnosed With Kidney Cancer as a Healthy Woman in My 30s – SheKnows

You were diagnosed with cancer?”

The persistent shock that I was met with when I shared my personal diagnosis with kidney cancer became familiar. As humans, I think it’s natural for us to want to identify either the root of a problem or find a solution. So, it wasn’t surprising that those that have followed me on social media had a lot of questions: Did I think I did anything that caused this? What could I have done differently? Was this something that ran in my family so I was at higher risk? The majority asked out of concern for my personal well-being, mixed in with an undertone of ‘If this could happen to Rachel, someone so youthful and healthy, could this happen to me?Online I was known to be a matcha loving, spin class sweating, mindful journaler, how could I have cancer?

Despite the many questions I received, the only question circling around in my own head at the time though was: Am I going to die?

There were about 81,000 new cases of kidney cancer in the United States in 2023, according to the American Cancer Society — with the majority in men. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 65 and 74. It’s also more common in African Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives.

I am none of these.

While I did not fit the norm, there’s always exceptions to the rule and the truth of the matter is:  Cancer does not discriminate.

How I Discovered I Had Cancer

In the days leading up to the morning that landed me in the hospital, I felt fatigued. I did not necessarily think it was out of the ordinary to feel a little tired; however, little did I know that the lethargy I was feeling was a foreboding to something more alarming.

The weekend of, I attended a community garden clean-up. I recall the evening before, I went to bed earlier knowing that I had to do a bit of physical labor in the morning. As I was cleaning up the garden and conversing with my neighbors, I suddenly felt fatigued. I thought it was a bit strange given I had just had a full night’s uninterrupted sleep but decided to excuse myself and went home to rest. I had gone to the beach the day before and the energy from the sun can sometimes be draining so I began to justify the fatigue. ‘It’s nothing,’ I thought.

After waking up from a longer nap, I still didn’t feel refreshed. However, I spent the rest of the day pushing through and carrying on with the rest of the weekend’s plans. I thought I just needed one more night to rest.

The following morning, the morning of the diagnosis, I jolted up from bed around 7 A.M. with an excruciating sharpness in my abdomen that I had never experienced before. I’ve had a history of stomach cramps and aches over the years but this was new. Unable to stand up straight, I rushed to the bathroom as quickly as I could, which to be honest, wasn’t quickly at all. It felt like I was moving at the speed of someone stuck in mud. It was so painful to move my core in any way unless my abdomen was in a protective, curled fetal position. While my energy was focused on this abdominal pain, I, very suddenly and abruptly, felt nauseous and had to vomit. With nothing coming out of my system except for bile and the few sips of water I had had that morning, I continued to feel not only nauseous but the pain in my abdomen was worsening; now beginning to feel like newly sharpened knives poking at me from the inside.

So many different parts of my body were in pain; my abdomen, my lower back, the nausea, and now to add to the list, sweat suddenly, and rapidly, began to drip off of my body. I tried going to the bathroom but as I got up, I noticed a toilet bowl filled with fluid that was the color of Coca-Cola, with a red tint to it. ‘Had I started my cycle?’, I thought. For a moment I thought that could explain away the abdominal cramping but what about the extreme nausea, vomiting, sweating, and it all happening at the same time? I couldn’t handle it any longer so I finally went to the emergency room.

The next hours in the ER were a blur and concoction of pain, agony, malaise, and disorientation. Though the pain medication helped some of my symptoms on the surface, it did not give me any of the answers I was seeking; though some of the support staff suggested I likely had a kidney stone that needed to pass. I continued to wait for answers (and for the doctor), until finally one came in with the results from the CT scan I had taken.

‘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 you and have you see a urologist.’

With more tests being done and a morphine drip now soothing my pain helping me feel back to my normal, a specialist came into my room with my final diagnosis:

This is kidney cancer.

An 8-centimeter mass covered my right kidney and needed to be removed. This doctor, and the others that I went to for second, third, and fourth opinions, all gave me the same diagnosis with the same treatment for removal of my kidney. 

Lessons Cancer Taught Me

Though I can lightly joke about it now and say, ‘Hey, great that we are born with two!’’ there’s still scars that I look down on regularly that remind me of this very sobering time in my life where I lived in the unknown. In the days, weeks, months, and now years after the diagnosis and surgery that I went through, there has been one constant: The understanding that life is just one big unknown, where we are always living in a grab bag of variables that can change your perspective on life at any given moment.

You can’t walk away from cancer, no matter what diagnosis or stage, without some sense of renewed perspective on life and what’s important.

Create foundational musts in your life

Much like paying your utilities on time is a minimum to your monthly living, there are certain life minimums we all need to identify to build a healthy foundation for life. In the corporate world, there’s a concept called Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. It’s the minimum version of a product that you send out into the world to where you can gather enough feedback so you can continue to build and improve from there. I often use this concept when thinking about life. What does my absolute minimum look like with my health? From there I can build on it. One minimum that is vital to everyone’s foundation is being in tune with your body. Schedule all your medical appointments, examine your body for any new growths or changes in any moles or anything on your body, and most importantly listen to your body. It speaks to us constantly and it’s up to us to respond to what our body is saying.

Time is limited

As much as we’d like it to sometimes, time doesn’t stop. It’s always moving forward, ticking away. Our minds can have the tendency to easily slip into ruminating about the past or worrying about the future and yet it all doesn’t matter because whether you’re stuck worrying or not, your time is moving forward on the clock and your time is limited. There’s nothing like cancer and a traumatic health scare to help you remember this one fact. The moments that I spent in the hospital and in recovery were not spent thinking about work or daily life stressors, they were spent thinking about all the people I wanted to continue to share my time and my life with. Sometimes it takes these eye-opening, shocking life experiences to really help you recalibrate the moment that you are in.

Meaningful connection heals

It’s in the valleys and downward moments in life where you really discover the value of depth in connection with others. Cancer is a very isolating and lonely experience so having people around me who knew how to hold my energy and support me in a way that I needed was in one simple word: healing. I’m a firm believer that our bodies are physically capable of so much and have an extraordinary capacity to heal itself, but I’m equally just as big of a believer in the healing that can happen when you open up your heart to the emotional comfort and support from others. Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer or not, invest in deepening relationships with others. It can heal you more than you even realize in this present moment.

Give yourself space to feel

The initial diagnosis and subsequent weeks and months that followed allowed for little room to grieve and feel my way through the experience. I felt I had to be “strong” for my loved ones. I thought for a while I had to put on my stoic armor and act “normal,” in such an anything but normal time. However, the moment I allowed myself the space to feel, the tears I shed had such a cathartic effect on me. Allowing myself this space didn’t make me feel weak or broken but actually more whole and complete as a human being. When you give yourself the compassion and honor of the full breadth of emotions in what it means to be a human, you’re then opening up the door to self-understanding and your own personal emotional growth. Our emotions are an essential part to our universal, collective human experience and they deserve to be recognized and nurtured.

Despite now having crossed the 5-year milestone from my initial diagnosis, my surgical scars that remain are a reminder to me of the complex, yet simple tapestry of life. We each grow through such unique, varied, and sometimes challenging experiences but at our core, there is a simplicity to what fulfills us all as humans. It’s our need for prioritizing our personal well-being, our connections, and acceptance of self that truly creates an enriching, healthy life.

Rachel Rhee is a creator and coach with a primary focus on providing support to high-achieving professionals and solopreneurs in crafting the work-life harmony and life alignment they aspire to achieve. Drawing from Rachel’s own 15 years of diverse cross-industry experience in management consulting, fintech, and wellness, she recognizes the importance of aligning professional pursuits with personal values and life vision. Rachel is also the creator and host of the podcast, “You Are Here.” It serves as a space where she delves into the stories of professionals living life on their own terms, fostering a sense of community and shared wisdom. To learn more about Rachel, follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Apple Podcasts.

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