Bill’s blessing in disguise: ‘Cancer saved my life’
William Blue did not wish for cancer but is now thankful he had it. Bill’s diagnosis, at age 56, was his reckoning – a life-changing experience that may have saved his life. In June 2020, nagging back pain sent Bill to his local doctor in Perry, Florida.
“Kidney stones,” he thought. Probably no big deal. Go to the doctor, take some medication, and it will likely pass in weeks.
Instead, Bill’s doctor told him he had a tumor in his kidney – cancer.
A month later, Padraic O'Malley, MD, a urology surgeon at UF Health, recommended removing Bill’s right kidney to get the entire tumor. The cancer was in stage 3. The fourth and last stage is when cancer metastasizes and becomes terminal.
“I woke up from surgery without any pain. I can’t imagine how it could have gone any better,” Bill said. “I don’t believe anyone has ever been treated more professionally and kindly than how Drs. O’Malley and [Jonathan] Chatzkel and their entire staff treated me. They made a naturally stressful experience much more pleasant and stress-free. I recovered more quickly than most patients do.”
To complement surgery, O’Malley suggested that Bill participate in an innovative immunotherapy clinical trial offered at UF Health. The trial sought to improve Bill’s long-term recovery and destroy any potentially remaining cancer cells.
Immunotherapy is a relatively new treatment that activates a person’s natural immune system to fight cancer cells. The body’s immune system is in a daily battle to protect us from viruses and diseases and to keep us healthy. Immunotherapy drugs supercharge the body’s innate immune response to cancer cells, identifying them as invaders and setting out to destroy them. The therapy is often personalized for the individual based on his/her specific tumor and its precise location.
Bill received one immunotherapy treatment prior to surgery and three afterward. Most people who receive this treatment regimen return to their normal activities within 4-6 weeks of their surgery, but Bill was back to work in about three weeks.
In some cases, immunotherapy can have fewer side effects than other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation, because it only targets the immune system. Common side effects such as hair loss are avoided and patients experience far less impact on their day-to-day lives, meaning their quality of life is relatively unaffected.
“At the same time, immunotherapy works better than chemotherapy against certain tumors,” O’Malley said.
Bill continued to recover from his bout with cancer when a second round of life-altering news hit. His remaining kidney was in trouble. It had kidney disease.
Concerned that he may lose that kidney as well, Bill made drastic changes to his diet and lifestyle.
The recommended kidney-healthy diet stresses fruits, vegetables and limited red meat. Bill took that to heart and became vegan, eliminating meat, cheese and all animal products from his diet. In one year, he has lost 70 pounds – dropping from 310 to 240 pounds.
“I have never felt better in my life,” Bill said. “I tell people cancer saved my life.”