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As Steve Ruisi was rolled into surgery earlier this year for a radical nephrectomy, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, coming through the speakers, seemed an ironic choice for an operating room.

And now the end is here 
And so I face that final curtain...
I did it, I did it my way.

But when Ruisi’s surgeon came to check on him and asked if there was anything else he’d prefer to listen to, he had no swaps.

“I told him, ‘whatever is going to make you save my life, that’s what you should play,’” Ruisi said. “He cranked up the Sinatra.”

Ruisi’s kidney cancer had progressed since his 2020 stage 1 diagnosis showing two suspicious tumor on his left kidney and one on his right to 15 grade 4 rhabdoid tumors in the fat surrounding the left kidney by 2022, the unfortunate result of tumor cells “spilling” into neighboring tissues during an initial partial nephrectomy of the left kidney.

Steve Ruisi and his family.

After a year of clean scans, seeing the tumors again was jarring. Several consultations and multiple opinions later, his second surgeon told him the left kidney needed to be removed completely.

“When I first got diagnosed, mentally I was fine. Before and after the first surgery, I felt like a million bucks. I was looking good [after a prior bariatric surgery to manage weight], I felt like I was 35 again,” said Ruisi, who is 52. “After the scan this February, it killed my head. We went from ‘kidney is fine’ to ‘it has to come out’ – that was an emotional swing.”

Ruisi’s intense reaction to the recurrence led him to seek even more support from his family, including his 81-year-old mother, who came to New York from Florida to stay with him, and his sister, who made orange ribbon kidney cancer awareness shirts.

This was a help for his wife, too – his “wingman” – who he leaned on the most for emotional support and to help manage the kidney cancer. She accompanied him to appointments and researched information online and beyond.

Talking with a fellow patient was helpful. Ruisi connected a friend of his extended family who had also had a kidney removed due to cancer and, like Ruisi, spent a significant amount of time at or near ground zero after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the friend as a firefighter and Ruisi as an elevator/escalator technician with the City of New York, where days spent shoveling debris, ash, and soot out of damaged subway stations left him with a black face.

“He called me and guided me through a lot,” Ruisi said of this friend, who also consulted many of the same kidney cancer specialists in New York City that Ruisi did. “Besides my family for all the emotional stuff, he was an emotional support and an experienced supporter.”

Ruisi also managed his heightened panic after his recurrence with walks, beginning immediately after his second kidney surgery.

“What inspired me was an older woman, I didn’t know what she’d had surgery for, walking laps around the hospital,” Ruisi said. “Every time she passed by she would wave at me. Although we never said two words to each other, I said, if she’s doing it, I’m doing it. I would walk a mile and a half around the nurse’s station – 21 laps.”

His support system also helped him realize that, while consistent positivity is difficult, keeping the negativity away is more important.

“If you can somehow keep yourself busy – with hobbies, walks, playing with the dog, doing small tasks – you won’t dwell on the negative and you can defeat those thoughts to stay even keeled,” Ruisi said. “And reach out to people and talk to them. Join forums or associations to get the support you need to get past this or get help during. Now, I want to be there for people also.”

Ruisi has made it a point to extend his hand others facing kidney cancer who might need an experienced supporter of their own, if only to make it clear that he’s available to talk at any time.

The current plan for Ruisi is to continue monitoring with scans, especially since the tumor in the right kidney is still present. Should the need arise, a clinical trial might be the next step, so Ruisi and his care team are avoiding any drug treatments and their potential side effects for the moment. His first post-op scan this year was clean.

“Do I have doubts about longevity? Not like I used to,” he said.

Hearing “My Way” still makes Ruisi emotional. But, considering the message of self-determination, perhaps Sinatra wasn’t an ironic choice after all.

For what is a man, what has he got? 
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way.

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1 thought on “Steve Ruisi found “his way” through kidney cancer”

  1. My name is Zaharia Mircea.I have a 1.3 cm small renal mass,hiperechogenic at ultrasound.Doctor says it is angiomyolipoma,I am not so sure.I am a romanian citizen,living in Romania.I search sometimes your site,in order to know much more about kidney cancer.
    All the best and good health for all of you!
    Kind Regards,
    Zaharia Mircea

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