Patient Testimonial — Steven Harris (Partial Nephrectomy)

Steven Harris

When you’re my age—I just turned 38—you don’t expect to hear the words, “You have kidney cancer.” But that’s just what happened to me last year. I’d gotten sick during April, feeling nauseous and throwing up to the point where I couldn’t keep any food down and lost about 25 pounds. I saw Dr. Tobias, a GI specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center, who ordered CT scans, X-rays, an endoscopy and a colonoscopy. Everything checked out fine. Then I began to experience pain in my back, and one day I had a drop of blood in my urine—that was all. But it was enough to encourage the doctors to do an ultrasound scan of my kidneys. The scan showed some sort of growth on both kidneys, which was confirmed by a follow-up MRI.

Next, my wife and I met with Dr. William Huang, a urologic surgeon at NYU who is an expert on treating kidney cancer. When he said there was a good chance the growths were cancer, we didn’t hesitate—we told him, “Take it out, ASAP.” The growth on the left kidney was bigger than the one on the right, so Dr. Huang would operate on that one first. Since the tumor was in a good position, near the pole, he could perform a partial nephrectomy, taking out only the 5 percent of the kidney where the tumor was located and preserving the rest of the kidney. As I found out from my research, if I didn’t live in a part of the country where this kind of surgical expertise existed, I most likely would have had to have the entire kidney removed.

The earliest slot for the first kidney surgery was a week and a half later at the end of May after Memorial Day. Because it was such short notice, the da Vinci robot wasn’t available, so Dr. Huang did the procedure laparoscopically instead. He took out the tumor and it was sent to be biopsied. When the results came back, I didn’t have to call in to get them. To my surprise, Dr. Huang called me personally to tell me that it was intermediate-grade renal cell cancer. Then he reminded me that, based on the biopsy of this tumor and the size of the other tumor, I could wait a while to recover prior to removing the tumor in my other kidney. Again, I just wanted it out—so we scheduled a second operation for August, figuring this would give me one month to recover from the first surgery and another month to build up my strength for the second procedure.

For the second kidney surgery, the da Vinci robot was available.  Dr. Huang explained that he’d prefer to use it for my second partial nephrectomy, since it would allow him excise the tumor and repair my kidney more quickly compared to the laparoscopic approach. I was a little nervous about the prospect, but I did a good deal of research, and everything I read about robotic surgery said that it would actually be a better, more precise procedure. Plus, having gone through surgery once with Dr. Huang, I trusted him with my life. So I agreed to have the operation done robotically.

As it turned out, I recovered a lot faster from the second operation than from the first one. In fact, four days after my second surgery, I attended my 20-year high school reunion in Port Jefferson, NY, a 70-mile car ride each way from my home.  Even though the first procedure was laparoscopic and was also minimally invasive, I was in a lot of pain afterwards. For the second procedure in which the robot was used, I was off pain medication, driving around, and eating normally within a week and a half. The incision scars from the robotic surgery were also a lot smaller than the scars from my first operation—even my five-year-old son noticed the difference.

Throughout both procedures, the NYU Langone hospital staff was phenomenal. My mother had died of Crohn’s disease, and I know what it’s like to have to deal with a hospital staff after an operation. At NYU, everyone was terrific at keeping us informed about everything that was going on.

It’s pretty amazing to be told that you have cancer on both kidneys, and then suddenly have it gone—while I still have both my kidneys. I just had my one-year checkup with Dr. Huang since the first operation, and the MRI showed that everything is fine. Since I have no family history of kidney cancer and it affected both of my kidneys, I’ve had my DNA tested.  They didn’t find any mutations that can be passed on, which is a relief since I have two young children. Meanwhile, my stomach problems have gone away, and it’s not clear whether they had anything to do with my cancer diagnosis. I feel lucky I got sick when I did because it led to the accidental discovery of my bilateral kidney cancer at an early stage. I am blessed because I had the strong support of my family, friends, and a great doctor at such a critical time.