Leah Christoforidis was 32 weeks pregnant when she started feeling the symptoms of kidney cancer. She pushed back against the suggestion that it might just be muscle pain – Leah is something of a fitness buff, and this didn’t feel like any pulled muscle or strain she’d ever dealt with before. An ultrasound confirmed a mass on her kidney. She stayed in the hospital for three weeks, delivered her baby early, and had her kidney removed. In December 2020, the biopsy confirmed it was Stage 1 kidney cancer.
Leah works full time as a patent attorney in Chicago, is mother to four children under age seven, and works out five times most weeks, so if exhaustion is one of her symptoms, she was unlikely to notice. In fact, she credits her regular high intensity interval training (HIIT) routine and Pilates with helping keep her energy up as she recovered from surgery and went through several months of medications. Occasionally during the pandemic, her six-year-old twins would join in on workout videos, but she mostly uses exercise classes and gym time as a way to get out of the house.
“It’s one more thing on my to-do list, which unfortunately is in the top tier,” Leah said. “But you know you can’t spend all day on it – it will drive you crazy. You’ve got to find the balance, just like anything else.”
Leah is part of a big Greek family split between Chicago and California. She’s gotten support – and lots of food – from both family and friends, which enabled her to be more proactive in her care. She’s used her training as a lawyer to do her background research, visiting many different types of specialists, and getting second opinions on just about everything. As a woman in her early forties, she’s not who most urologists or kidney cancer oncologists are used to seeing. She emphasizes the importance of “being your own best advocate.”
“I will say that the one thing I’ve learned through this whole process is that it’s important to talk to all different kinds of doctors, not just oncologists,” Leah said. “While the oncologists offer one perspective on what the best treatment or medication may be, they’re not always the best at informing the patient on what supplemental treatments there may be and what options are available. You don’t really find those out until you talk to an [internal radiology] person or talk to a surgeon. My cancer is metastatic to the liver, so I’ve actually spoken to a couple of liver surgeons, which is not what normally happens with a renal cancer diagnosis.
“Chicago is a big city so there are certainly great resources here, but I’m young and mobile so I’m able to travel and go see all these different folks. My background is one of ‘let’s gather all the information possible.’ I’m still working with the original oncologist that I started with, but I will say that I have learned a tremendous amount through all of my travels and through all of my meetings.”
Leah said she found the Kidney Cancer Association (KCA) when she first started looking for information on her diagnosis. The KCA helped her identify many of the experts she spoke to, but, in many ways, the most important experts were the other patients whose stories she read. Seeing their journeys energized and empowered her.
“Especially when you’re first diagnosed, you don’t know where to turn,” Leah said. “When I first got diagnosed, it was the first place I found to provide great resources for patients.”
Leah wanted give back through a fundraiser on March 13th with Shred 415, a local gym. Thirty-two people signed up to join her in hour-long HIIT class, but her fundraiser, which she is leading through the KCA’s create-your-own-fundraiser resource, has already raised over $7000 for kidney cancer research – mostly through word of mouth. Leah credits this to the support around her.
“There’s this discussion about whether having a positive attitude matters, whether positivity helps,” Leah said. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily positive or negative. There’s plenty of days where I’m like ‘okay, I can do this, I can beat this, I can get past this hurdle.’ And then there’s other days where I’m like ‘this sucks.’ But the desire to keep moving and to continue fight and search for answers – no matter how you feel, you have to have the willpower to keep doing that in whatever form that means. And I’m certainly lucky to have the friends and family that I do to help me keep going. And certainly my children – I have a lot to fight for on that front.”
Learn more about Leah Christoforidis’s fitness fundraiser or create your own fundraiser.