Warning: Long and very personal
Over the last 40 years, I've had amazing highs and significant lows. Life is full of experiences that shape you into the person that you are.
Recently I've been struggling with some terrible pain and discomfort in my abdomen and chest. It all started immediately after Halloween, when I swapped two bedrooms worth of furniture up and down a flight of stairs. This included everything from multiple beds, couches, desks, and even a large treadmill. After all the moving was done, I began feeling heart palpitations, fatigue, occasional dizziness, and elevated blood pressure when doing my daily exercises. This was completely out of the ordinary and scary when it caused me to collapse during routine push-ups.
A few days prior to a 5K run at my son's school, my wife suggested calling the doctor's advice line. "Absolutely do not go run a race right now and come in for some tests" they said with a pretty solid emphasis. They put me on a treadmill, hooked me up to an EKG, and ran some blood tests. They found nothing out of the ordinary, but were able to catch the palpitations on the monitor. My primary doctor said they were Premature Ventricular Contractions (PVCs) and they were nothing to worry about. I disagreed since they felt like someone was punching me in the chest and knocking the wind out of me.
A few weeks later, I was about to fly to Vegas to meet up with some friends, and my wife noted that she could feel my pulse in my thumb. She said it was very strong and "scary feeling", so she suggested I don't get on the flight. The trip was planned for many months and I didn't want to let my friends down, so I went. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. It was at this point that the symptoms increased significantly. Pretty much any activity, like carrying luggage, walking around a busy airport, or climbing stairs, would make me feel like I was having a heart attack. I honestly thought that my last moments were on the second floor of LAX. As soon as I arrived at the Vegas airport, my friend of nearly 40 years immediately drove me to the ER for some tests (thank you Rob!). So instead of enjoying an amazing steak dinner (which I'll never hear the end of), I spent it with an IV in my arm and getting numerous heart-attack related tests performed. The docs eventually let me go, saying my lungs and heart look fine. They suggested a few possibilities, but ultimately had no idea. They did, however, note that my blood pressure was 180 prior to walking out the door. My primary doc prescribed me blood pressure pills that I picked up from a Las Vegas Walgreens. He repeatedly suggested it was "Covid and anxiety."
After coming home, I started playing around with my diet. Perhaps it was something I was eating that caused these symptoms. I did eat quite a few protein bars while traveling and typically eat them before exercising, so it would make sense that something in the bars were triggering a physical response.
During Thanksgiving and Christmas, my symptoms were hit or miss. We were initially led to believe it was soy, so all elements of soy were eliminated from my diet. This was a huge challenge since practically every food at the store has soy in it. If you don't believe me, try doing a soy-free diet yourself. This new diet seemed to do the trick - until it didn't. The symptoms came back and hit harder than before. We then tried eliminating gluten, chocolate, nuts, and wheat to limited success. Fasting for 24 hours was the only thing that made me feel somewhat normal.
One night, I made the family pepperoni pizza from scratch. Within the hour, I was on the floor unable to breathe, my chest was pounding intensely, the room was spinning, arms tingly, chest tight, and I was borderline having a panic attack (panic is not something I do). Then maybe 15 minutes later, it was gone. This new cycle continued after every meal, but the intense chest pounding continued 24/7. A good night's sleep now suddenly non-existent.
Eventually, was tired of feeling like trash after every meal. I would make a salad and have heart attack symptoms an hour later. Eggs, toast, bland salmon - all causing the feeling of a heart attack. Any caffeine quickly became untouchable, as it made the chest pounding and blood pressure worse. My primary doctor sent me for a stress echo. This is where they make you run on a treadmill and then use sound to visualize how the heart works under stress. The cardiologist said, "I don't know what is causing your issues, but it certainly isn't your heart."
My primary told me at this time, "I don't know what it is, but it's not dangerous. Anything else I can help you with?" I told him it happens after eating, and I would like to speak to a GI. He refused numerous times during multiple visits, and even laughed at me while continuing to send me for heart tests. He even messaged the cardiologist again and received an "it's not his heart" response.
Five months of pain, stress, no sleeping, chest pounding, and exhaustion, and my primary was clearly useless. Not only was he useless, but he actively refused to let me speak with a GI or continue any other tests. Everyone I told about the situation (including an X-ray technician) told me to switch doctors.
I eventually called the hospital advice line and told the nurse about these symptoms, and they immediately sent me to a GI for an endoscopy and related blood tests. The endoscopy came back negative, but the GI offered a CAT scan. It was at this time they found it.
The repeatedly missed phone calls gave me relief that they knew what it was. When I called back, they informed me there is a large 13 cm mass on my left kidney. If you were wondering what the image at the top is, the spiked looking fruit on the right is a 3D print I made to demonstrate the size of the tumor.
My urologist says that my symptoms are certainly explained by the massive size of it. It's been pushing against my stomach, heart, lungs, bowels, and everything in between. When I eat, all my organs are competing for space. At times, I can feel every centimeter of it pushing against my inner rib and stomach.
This whole experience has been incredibly rough. Going from no one believing you, to getting hit with the worst news possible. Clearly, this has caused me to have a rollercoaster of emotions. It's relieving and stressful that we're finally at this point. However, this all suddenly becomes real every visit and phone call from the doc. I try my best to keep it together, but I'm human and can only do my best. It's important that my kids don't see me cry, as I don't want them to worry.
My urologist is going to remove the mass tomorrow morning during a four-hour-long surgery. The festivities start at 10:00, so wish me luck. I wanted to share my experience so far - just in case.
[update] I'm down a kidney and (so far) there are no more signs of cancer. These last two weeks were rough for recovery, but the doc said I should be running within the month!
My original primary doctor may have been the worst possible experience, but the rest of the doctors and nurse staff at Kaiser were kind, caring, friendly, and genuinely cared about my well-being. I owe each one of them hugs and gratitude. This whole situation could have been much more difficult if not for their professionalism and empathy.