‘We’ve battled kidney cancer like TV’s Andrew Marr’
Five years after he had a stroke, TV’s Andrew Marr (58) has revealed that he has kidney cancer and undergone surgery to remove a malignant tumour. Two Northern Ireland men tell Leona O’Neill how they coped with a kidney cancer diagnosis.
‘I had run five marathons ... now walking the corridor became hard’
Father-of-three Eamon Baker (67), from Londonderry, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in March 2014. The multi-marathon running man, who works with Holywell Trust in the city, describes it as one of the most terrifying and emotional experiences of his life.
"I was in work one Monday morning in January and went to the bathroom," he says. "I was shocked to see blood in the toilet, lots of it. It was completely out of the blue. Red on the white bowl. I went straight to my doctor's surgery, not knowing that this was a red flag with regards kidney cancer. I wasn't sure what was going on. Within two weeks, actually on Valentine's Day, I had the camera test done and a CT scan.
"I still wasn't switched on to what was about to happen. So on the day of my appointment to get the results I arrived at the hospital by myself. I was met by an oncology nurse who told me that the surgeon would be with me shortly. I went into a room and I heard the words 'the CT scan revealed a 6cm volume of cancer on your right kidney and we need to remove it soon'. I think I said a very bad word out loud. I was on my own. I had absolutely no anticipation this was going to happen. I was in total shock. I remember rambling to the oncology nurse about how I knew her family, I talked about her father and her uncle. I would rather have talked about her father than the cancer. I was just babbling.
"I went outside and rang my partner Anne. I told her the news. We were both shaking and emotional. I couldn't imagine how this could have happened. I had been a vegetarian for 32 years and I had been very, very fit and looked after myself. It was so shocking. It was a really, really scary time."
Two weeks later Eamon was in Altnagelvin Hospital to have his right kidney removed.
"The surgery was scheduled for 2pm," he says. "A chirpy nurse arrived at the door of my room and said 'Right Mr Baker, we are ready for you now'. I was very nervous going down to theatre. I remember being struck by everything being silvery steel and clinical. One of the nurses broke the nervous tension by asking loudly if I had my false teeth out. I laughed then.
"Then the anaesthetist asked me to think of the best holiday I ever had. Three seconds later I was out. I woke up after five hours, minus a kidney. I really felt like I could die. The doctors knew it was in my kidney but I was really concerned if they had caught it all. However, they couldn't give me the answer to that question yet.
"The day after the operation I felt very low. I was really weak. I think the reality of the situation had just hit me.
"I left the hospital after a week with a packet of paracetamol. I remember thinking 'surely there's more to it that this'. I've just had cancer and they are giving me painkillers. They told me to keep myself active. I had run five marathons in my lifetime but now walking up and down the corridor was hard."
Eamon had a scan six months later in September 2015, and the results were encouraging. After Christmas they found two nodules in his lungs and he was scanned every three months to check on their progress. He says it was at this point that he turned to alternative medicine.
"When they talked to me about chemotherapy in Belfast I went from that conversation to see David Foley, a medical herbalist based in Letterkenny," he says. "I explained the situation. I told him about the nodules in my lungs. He recommended a number of herbal medicines for me. I have been taking them from January 2016 and opted not to have chemo. I have been for scans every three months since then and they have said the nodules hadn't grown. I haven't got the all-clear, I am always very dubious of that term. But I am doing well."
‘The whole experience has taught me to listen to my body’
Conal Meenan (35) was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2016. The father-of-three from the Waterside area of Londonderry had to have his right kidney removed. The insurance worker says he will forever be grateful to the NHS staff who not only saved his life, but kept him laughing throughout his cancer journey.
"Towards the tail end of 2015 I started to get a lot of anxiety," he says. "I thought it was because I had moved up in work to a different position. For two months I felt nauseous and sick with anxiety most days. At some point during each day I was doubled over with pain and I couldn't move, trying to breathe as much as I could to get rid of it. It was so bad I went to the doctor. The doctor thought I might have gallstones, as the place where I had the intense feeling of anxiety was where my gallbladder was, and he sent me to the hospital for a scan.
"My wife was heavily pregnant with our second child at the time. I went to the hospital for a CAT scan and we went home and waited for the results. A few days later we were sat in the doctor's surgery and he was telling me that he didn't want to tell a 33-year-old that he has cancer, but unfortunately that was what was happening.
"He said that the CAT scan revealed that I had a tumour, six to 10 cm wide, which was actually splitting my right kidney in half.
"My first reaction was to go quiet. I shut down and didn't move, didn't talk, didn't do anything. My wife was at the appointment and knew that was how I dealt with traumatic circumstances. She started asking questions about how bad it was and how do we deal with it. The doctor said they would have to take the kidney out straight away.
"On Valentine's Day in 2016, four days after our baby son Rory was born, I went into hospital and the next day they took out my kidney. We named him 'Kevin the kidney'."
Conal says he was terrified going to theatre for a major operation, the outcome of which would determine his future. He broke down in the theatre, realising the gravity of the situation, but the staff made him laugh.
"I was absolutely petrified going down for the surgery," he admits. "I don't normally go to the hospital if anything happens to me. I just suck it up and get on with it. Going into the hospital and everyone leaving you for the night, and you're sitting there by yourself wondering and worrying. It was pretty nerve-wracking. Not knowing what was happening the next day, trying to sleep, trying to do anything, was impossible because I was worrying. It was awful.
"But the staff were so good at making me feel at ease. They have seen this on a daily basis. Going into theatre, the anaesthetist knew that I was terrified of needles so he took out this massive big oversized needle and told me he was going to use that. Then he said that he was only joking and brought out the right one. I have a large beard and he said he was going to shave it off when I was under. I thought it was hilarious. They just knew how to calm me.
"I was laying on that table, at 33 years old, tears running down my face because I didn't know what was happening. But they helped me through it."
Conal says that they caught his cancer in time and he didn't need chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Like any cancer survivor he still attends the hospital for regular scans. He says the experience has changed his outlook in life.
"After the whole situation I was diagnosed with depression," he says. "I still do suffer from it. But the experience taught me to listen to my body. It has also made me want to do more to help other survivors through charity. I'll do anything I can to help others who have been on the same journey."
The symptoms to look out for
In many cases, there are no obvious symptoms of kidney cancer at first and it may only be picked up during tests carried out for another reason. If symptoms do occur, they're often similar to those of less serious conditions, such as urinary tract infections or kidney stones.
Main symptoms of kidney cancer can include:
- blood in your urine; you may notice your pee is darker than normal or reddish in colour
- a persistent pain in your lower back or side, just below your ribs
- a lump or swelling in your side (although kidney cancer is often too small to feel)
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- persistent high blood pressure
- a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
- night sweats
- in men, swelling of the veins in the testicles
- swollen glands in your neck
- bone pain
- coughing up blood
Some of these symptoms only occur once the cancer is more advanced and has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones or lungs.
When to get medical advice
See your GP if you have symptoms of kidney cancer.
Although it's unlikely you have cancer, it's important to get your symptoms checked out.
Your GP may sometimes need to refer you for some tests in hospital to find out what the problem is.