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4th February 2020

The miracle kidney cancer survivor

When Dave deBronkart had an x-ray for shoulder pain, he received some unexpected news.

“The doctor said: ‘Your shoulder is going to be fine, but there’s something in your lung – we’re going to need to do a CT scan of your chest’,” the author, health policy advisor and international keynote speaker recounts in his TED talk. A computed tomography, also known as a CT or CAT scan, is a medical device that uses multiple x-rays to create cross-sectional images of a scanned object, allowing the user to see inside the object without cutting it. There was a lot to see.

The murky shadow that the doctor had first spotted on the x-ray was one of five tumours in Dave’s lungs that were now clearly visible on the CT scan. “At that point, we knew that it was cancer, we knew it wasn’t lung cancer. That meant it was metastasised from somewhere,” he says. In other words, the original tumour was in another part of his body and the cancer cells from that tumour had spread.

The doctor turned to ultrasound technology to investigate further. Using high-frequency sound waves, the ultrasound scan captured live images from inside Dave’s abdomen and revealed two large tumours on his right kidney. “One was growing out the front. It had already erupted and had latched onto the bowel. One was growing out the back and had attached to the psoas muscle, which is a big muscle in the back,” he explains.

Finally, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan provided detailed images. There were tumours everywhere, including on his brain. Dave had late-stage renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer), with a median survival of 24 weeks. He was stunned. “I didn’t feel sick at all. I’d been getting tired in the evening, but I was 56 years old. I was slowly losing weight, but for me, that was what the doctor told me to do,” he says. “This was bad. I was facing the grave.”

Motivated by the unthinkable prospect of not being there for his daughter’s wedding, Dave swung into action and started researching. His doctor recommended an online forum of cancer patients which gave him immense support. He connected with other kidney cancer patients who offered many practical suggestions from their own experience and knowledge of the scientific literature and local specialists. Being a savvy internet user, Dave listened thoughtfully then checked with his oncologist before acting.

Time was of the essence, and his surgeon carried out minimally invasive (laparoscopic) surgery to remove his cancerous kidney and adrenal gland. “With traditional surgery, it takes several months to recover and then begin treatment. With the laparoscopic surgery, I was able to start treatment within a few weeks. I’m sure glad they had that option,” Dave tells This Is MedTech. His last treatment was in July 2007 – seven months after his diagnosis. “Two years later, I was walking my daughter down the aisle at her wedding.”

Today, Dave continues to share his story worldwide to demonstrate how patients’ involvement in their treatment can make a huge difference in their health outcomes. He is the embodiment of the ‘I Am and I Will’ theme of World Cancer Day, which is all about empowering people to take action.