In June 2020, Kayla Bulkley gave birth to her and her husband’s long-awaited baby girl, Jane.
Within a month, Kayla was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
“It was a Saturday and we were getting newborn photos done with Jane and I felt TERRIBLE,” she said.
Kayla experienced fever and kidney pain about a week after birth. It wasn’t a urinary tract infection; antibiotics didn’t help. Kayla ended up going to the ER where she was found septic and with a high temperature. Confident her gallbladder was failing, doctors sent her for an ultrasound.
“During the ultrasound, I vividly remember [the tech] taking tons of pictures of my kidney,” Kayla said. “I was concerned but figured it was just an infection. I sat alone in my ER room (thanks Covid) pumping breast milk for my new baby when the doctor came in and said: ‘Your gallbladder looks perfect, but you have a 10 cm mass on your kidney.’
“That was the most lonely night I’ve ever endured. Because of [pandemic] restrictions, my husband had to stay home with my baby and I had to go through a cancer diagnosis alone. I cried so long my eyelids were swollen.”
An MRI led Kayla’s urologist to suggest her tumor was likely an oncocytoma, which are benign, and she scheduled a biopsy to confirm.
“They congratulated me and said that I was super lucky,” Kayla said. “Then came the call: ‘I’m really sorry, it’s actually cancer.’”
The diagnosis was yet another stressor at the time. Kayla was a first-time mother and Jane had spent time in the NICU. She began to experience severe postpartum depression and her husband, who had lost his job, was caring for Kayla and Jane full time. Their community rallied to support them.
“We thankfully had a WONDERFUL support system of people who helped us with meals, baby formula, and sweet gifts of encouragement,” Kayla said.
In August, Kayla’s right kidney and an 11 cm mass were removed; it staged 3a. Lymph nodes were clear and there was no sign of metastasis.
“The type was chromophobe [renal cell carcinoma (RCC)]. The ‘best’ type to get,” Kayla said. “BUT with this diagnosis comes little to no research and it’s really hard to find a doctor who has experience with it. There aren’t proven adjuvant treatments besides surgery and surveillance.”
Everyone with chromophobe RCC that Kayla has connected with through Facebook groups and Instagram have been young.
“We’re all scared and confused… [if] the median age for diagnosis is 60s then why are us young people getting it? We all agree that there should be more research towards chromophobe, not just clear cell [RCC, the most common type of kidney cancer].”
Following surgery, Kayla gets follow up CT scans and sees an oncologist who is familiar with chromophobe RCC. Their strategy is surveillance for now with the potential for combination treatments to prevent recurrence if necessary.
Jane is just over 6 months old now. While pandemic restrictions keep them playing at home, they also go for lots of walks in their neighborhood and Jane enjoys playing with dogs she sees.
“She’s been a beautiful light and distraction during all of 2020,” Kayla said.
For others facing a similar diagnosis, Kayla has a positive outlook.
“First of all it isn’t a death sentence! If found early enough, the prognosis is very good, especially in chromophobe types. Kidney cancer is slow growing. Take a big breath, you’re going to be ok. Take the diagnosis one step at a time. Get second opinions. Cancer makes you appreciate the little things and you’ll come out of it feeling like a warrior. ”