An Unexpected Kidney Cancer Diagnosis
Kidney cancer symptoms don't always show up — just ask kidney cancer survivor Louis Della Penna. Read his story.
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Louis Della Penna, 66, is a lucky and an unusual kidney cancer survivor. Della Penna, a retired insurance consultant and broker, never experienced any kidney cancer symptoms. He found out about his disease purely through chance.
In 1994, Louis Della Penna was having some pain in this throat that wouldn't go away. "Long story short, I had myself convinced I had throat cancer," says Della Penna, who lives in New Hope, Pa.
It made sense. Della Penna smoked the occasional cigar. He hadn't smoked cigarettes for years, but still, he was a former smoker. So he scheduled an appointment at Fox Chase Cancer Center with John "Drew" Ridge, MD, Fox Chase’s chief of head and neck surgery.
A Different Cancer Diagnosis
Dr. Ridge examined him and performed some tests. Within about three weeks, he had a biopsy performed under general anesthesia. The results: Della Penna had acid reflux.
Della Penna was embarrassed and apologized for wasting the doctor’s time. Ridge brushed off the apology and said, "You came here for a reason." He began asking Della Penna questions about his medical history, and unearthed the fact that his patient had had a kidney stone removed about six years earlier but had never undergone a follow-up exam.
Ridge referred Della Penna to Richard Greenberg MD, Fox Chase's chief of urologic oncology. "He'd had some microscopic blood in his urine," Dr. Greenberg recalls. "They assumed it was because of recurring kidney stones."
Greenberg had Della Penna swallow some dye and ran some imaging scans on him.
"Within a day or two I get a phone call," Della Penna says. "He tells me, 'There seems to be a little shadow on your left side near the kidney.'" After a couple more tests,
Greenberg told Della Penna that he had stage III kidney cancer.
This was a significant tumor &mash; it was about 13 to 14 centimeters, pretty big," Greenberg says. A normal kidney tumor is around 10 centimeters.
The kidney cancer diagnosis took Della Penna aback, as he had no kidney cancer symptoms whatsoever. "No back pain, no blood in the urine, nothing," he says. "I was shocked and upset and in denial."
Kidney Cancer Surgery and Recovery
Greenberg recommended removing the affected kidney as soon as possible, but Della Penna wanted a second opinion. He went to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and a medical team there confirmed the cancer diagnosis. Della Penna returned to Fox Chase for his surgery — a full nephrectomy.
The surgery wasn't as bad as the intestinal infection that Della Penna got while in the process of recovering from the surgery, however. "It was very weakening," he recalls. "Recovering from the infection was probably more of a challenge than the surgery recovery." It took him a full month to recover and get back to work.
That said, the surgery captured all the cancer, and Della Penna never needed radiation, chemotherapy, or other types of cancer treatment. He has remained cancer-free. His other kidney functions just fine.
Della Penna considers himself fortunate. "If Dr. Ridge hadn't pursued that line of questioning, I wouldn't be here.
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