This is a guest post by Kenneth G. Winters, 70, a retired US Navy Chaplain from Massachusetts.
I was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer in April 2018. The cancer had also spread to my bones. My oncologist, Dr. Kriti Mittal, shared gently with me, “I have to tell you that you are a very sick man.” Suffice it to say I was in pretty bad condition.
Due to severe pain, I was hospitalized and soon underwent much-needed major back surgery. I was fortunate to receive timely care; without it, I would likely have become paraplegic.
Afterwards, I went through a full series of radiation treatments, which had considerable impact, stopping the spread of cancer in the bone and starting some degree of progress.
During this hospitalization, I was in tremendous pain. I called my wife Connie and my primary care physician, who came to the medical center to guide a meeting of the medical care team that was helping me. I specifically remember her saying: “Everyone, we are going to listen as Ken shares about his pain.”
Thanks to her intervention, I was able to receive needed pain medication and a self-injection button for the toughest moments.
During my hospital stay, Dr. Mittal visited and shared the long-term treatment plan with my wife and me. Since then, she has guided me through ongoing immunotherapy. It is working beyond our best hopes. The tumor on my left kidney has reduced in size and is now described as “cyst-like”.
In addition, after a considerable journey, I have no skeletal pain. My palliative care provider was an essential part of weaning me off the pain relief medicine and now I take Tylenol a few times a week, usually after exercise. When I came home in May 2018. I was using a walker, barely able to get around and climb stairs. With the help of God and the incredible medical personnel, I was able to begin walking significant distances by July. That September, I completed all five miles of the UMass Cancer Walk & Run.
Faith in God has been an incredible strength and comfort to me, my wife of 47+ years, and our family. Our church family provide tangible support, visits, meals, and cards, along with essential prayer support. By June 2018, I was back leading a Praise Team at the morning worship service. Instead of standing, I was seated on a stool, but singing and playing guitar to God’s glory. I believe God has some more for me to do here on planet Earth.
I have lost many dear friends to illnesses, car crashes, and, specifically, cancer. I know my faith does not guarantee healing. Certainly, without the incredible care at the Cancer Center at UMass, I would probably have left this life behind in the summer of 2018. That didn’t scare me then and doesn’t scare me now, because I am a committed Christian and trust that Jesus’s promises of eternal life with him are true. It is all a gift of His grace. Still, for me, as for all of you, this life matters. God has given me the gift of life. I am thankful for the combined therapies of prayer, medicine, and exercise for the greatly increased quality and length of life I am experiencing now. Dr. Mittal and others have provided me with essential treatment and medical care. As a result of these things, I have been blessed with extended time with my beloved wife, my daughters, their spouses, and my grandson.
All is not perfect. My sleep is unpredictable, which saps me of the energy I need. I am fortunate or blessed (or both) that I do not have any extreme reactions or side effects from the immunotherapy regimen. I usually feel weaker and achier for 1-2 days after the treatment, but largely can go about my normal routine.
As my condition improved, I began working hard to improve my physical conditioning. I’m a retired US Navy Chaplain. I served two tours with the Marine Corps. Physical conditioning has always been important to me.
At first, I was just walking – one mile, then two miles, then three and so on. Swimming has worked wonders for my overall fitness and eliminated aches and pains. That September, Dr. Mittal gave me permission to try some easy kayaking, which is my favorite sport. I just cannot LIFT the kayak. Before cancer, I used to do some pretty intense mountain and road biking, but now I stay on the main bike trails. I have had to accept the fact that I will not be going as fast or as far as I used to. One crash or fall would likely shatter weakened bones and mean a long period of rehabilitation. However, I plan to keep doing what I can do for as long as I can and hope this continues to reap dividends in my overall health.
Perhaps more important is the fact that I can engage in a number of daily activities and chores – groceries, riding my lawn tractor, edge the grass, rake leaves. I was able to help my wife plant our sizeable vegetable garden.
I listen to my body and to my wife to make sure I am not overdoing things. We have hired younger folks to clean up after the New England snowstorms. At 70, that’s probably a good idea even if I was not dealing with cancer. I’m also thankful have the strength and energy to be involved in my church.
I wrote this at the suggestion of Dr. Mittal. From our first meeting, her caring nature and professionalism were on full display. She encouraged me to share my journey with kidney cancer – that it might resonate with and perhaps encourage someone who is dealing with advanced renal cancer.
I hope my story strikes a chord in someone’s heart and provides some encouragement and hope to those walking through similar journeys. It would have been easy to give up in the spring and early summer of 2018. Instead, with the help of my doctors and family, I did not give up and continue to make progress. I have enjoyed a longer life and a much higher quality of life than I would have thought possible when diagnosed almost three years
Life is meant to be lived, not just survived. I am thankful every day to each person that has helped me to continuing living through cancer, not just survive.