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Annamarya Scaccia

This is a guest post by Annamarya Scaccia, a writer, fitness expert, and kidney cancer survivor. Follow her on Instagram @stillwellfitness.

“In second place, number 87.”

I relax and sway to the front of the stage, the lights bright overhead. Feet planted, I move into my front pose and bend my head slightly, a medal placed around my neck.

It’s near the end of November, and we’re at the Natural Fit Federation’s Texas Classic, the last bodybuilding show of the season. I am competing for the first time on stage, as a Novice Figure athlete. My coach and I were aiming for first place but coming in second is still an impressive showing, I’d say.

With a roar of applause, I could hear people cheering my name. My coach, my boyfriend, my son, my close friends—there, in the audience, my circle of support. And it is in this moment, as I feel the energy around me, that I know I’ve found my true calling: to be the one-kidney bodybuilder.  

If you’ve followed my story so far, you’d know that, as an athletic kidney cancer survivor, I am vocal about the lack of content and support for athletes who live in the grey areas of fitness and wellness. This gap is particularly pronounced in the nutritional space. If you can’t have copious amounts of protein or must abide by certain dietary limits—but aren’t required to follow a specialized diet—then you’re out of luck for advice or guidance. Most of us are left with one vague rule to follow: “Watch your salt and watch your protein.”

In bodybuilding, protein is the holy grail. Protein repairs and rebuilds muscles, aiding their growth. The more protein you could eat, the better for your physique. Or in other words: eat a lot of protein, get buff. Rinse, repeat.

I am a competitor at heart—and as a competitor, I cannot shy away from a challenge. For me, building a strong, sculpted body without the ability to eat all the egg whites and tofu in the world was the challenge ahead. And as a fitness professional, I wanted to prove that you don’t need to have two kidneys or eat copious amounts of protein to stand on stage with other bodybuilders. I have lived my life in service of shattering the status quo and competing as an adaptive, one-kidney bodybuilder was another way to fulfill this purpose.

I decided to compete in the NFF Texas Classic because I wanted to change what it means to be a bodybuilder in today’s world.

There were many times, during my six-month journey to the stage, when I thought I would quit, never to compete. After all, I have only one kidney, and with one kidney, this means my health concerns become magnified in a way unbeknownst to the average bodybuilder. Plus, I have very strong feelings about my stomach—how it looks and why it looks that way. The skin that hangs, the scars, the folds, the reality. My muscles will never be massive, and my body will never be smooth and taut.

These were truths I had to confront and accept on multiple occasions during training season (or “on prep,” in bodybuilder parlance). My confidence, it’s fair to say, had been shattered more than once.

But then, my coach, Shaylin, would remind me why I embarked on this process in the first place—the greater mission I had to fulfill. Competing in a bodybuilding show wasn’t just a bucket list item for me. Becoming a competitive bodybuilder is my way of changing the narrative—of carving out a space for other kidney cancer survivors who aspire to compete. After all, as a friend told me, I may have taken second place at the NFF Texas Classic this year, but my competitors could eat their bodyweight in protein and I, well, can’t. “You really won,” she said.

I built this body while eating far less protein a day than most bodybuilders do. I built this body while taking more rest days than most bodybuilders do. I built this body while deviating from the standard. So if you’re ever told you can’t build the body you want, let my body be proof that that’s not true.

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34 thoughts on “The One-Kidney Bodybuilder”

  1. I just had a nephrectomy in May 2021. Stage 3 grade 4. I have been literally scanning every inch of the internet to find a way to body build with one kidney. Reading your story has really put some steam in my drive. Do you have any nutritional recommendations or guidelines you can send my way?

    1. I am glad my story can put some steam in your drive! And yes, I do. Please let me know if I can email you directly.

      1. please i would love if you can email anthn to me i never been healthy eater except for 3 years of my life where i had to cause i was obliged by army training 7 years later after graduating i discovered i had one kidney i’m still in denial and eating 200 and more gram of protein daily and taking whey and aminoacid boost plus fish oil and magnesium so am i on my way to loose my only kidney? i am also looking to compete in like 2 years i have a training program for 2 years and im currently only eating meati eggs and fish so any advice would mean the world im 186 cm male 108kg currently around 28% percent body fat so ty alot and thank you for wining second place it gave me hope

      2. I do CrossFit and i lost my kidney to cancer. I’m always told I won’t be able to build my muscles. I too would love your advice and information. Thank you.

          1. Hi, my mom has CKD stage 4 and I have been highly considering being tested to see if I’m a match for her. I am only 25 years old and have consumed my life with strength training and macro tracking which consists of a fairly high protein intake. I was wondering if I would be able to chat with you about your journey with fitness and life in general.

      3. My husband had a nephrectomy last year due to a tear in his ureter from a kidney stone and I am concerned with his diet considering he only has one kidney left. He is a meat and potatoes man so I have to cook his breakfast every morning, pack his lunch and snacks for work as well as cook him a healthy dinner so that he sticks to a healthy diet. If left to his own devices he would eat red meat every day, drink whey protein after working out along with creative for mass. He is a tank and works out every other day at the gym. To supplement his protein intake I make him a green smoothie with half a scoop of plant based protein for breakfast. I did my own research on his dietary restrictions until he can see a nephrologist next week for more information on dietary restrictions. Can you please share your thoughts on daily protein intake while living with one kidney? I admire your fortitude and pray for your health and success.

        1. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope the visit with the nephrologist provides some clarity. I do think that protein intake should be reduced depending on how the remaining kidney functions. Protein’s impact on the kidneys is an interesting debate–there are studies that show an extreme excess of protein can harm kidneys that already have reduced function, but other studies show that protein’s impact is also vastly overestimated, and that the recommended amounts are vastly underestimated. Personally, I stay at the lower end of the recommended daily amount scale for people who work out heavily (which is around 0.8g – 1g per bodyweight pound), but you and your husband will have a better sense once you speak to your doctor. One important thing to bring up is the impact of muscle mass on kidney function numbers. let’s talk about that offline. Feel free to email me at [email protected].

  2. My name is Tony Gall. my son was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor when he was five years old. He had the kidney taken out and chemotherapy. He is now almost 14 years old and is getting into lifting weights. He wants to take protein because everyone is doing it and people are telling him he won’t get any gains if he doesn’t. I could really use some help and more knowledge on the subject because there really isn’t a whole lot out there thank you so much in advance

    1. Thanks for reaching out, Tony. I’m glad to know your son is healthy and doing well now. They’re right that he needs protein for gains; what they’re not right about is how much. The more protein, the better for muscle growth. But we do not need more than the RDA to build muscle. It will take him longer, and his muscles won’t get huge in the same amount of time as someone who could eat more than the RDA. But it can be done. The important thing is to talk to his doctor to get a sense of what they would recommend for his kidney function. I’d also say he needs to load up on carbs before any lift to give him that energy. I love to chat with you more about this; if you have Instagram, please send me a message at @stillwellfitness. I hope this helps!

      1. Dear Ms. Scaccia:
        This article is literally the only one that I can find for an athlete training with one kidney. Thank you for putting your story out there.

        As I just turned 60, and wanting to get healthier to stave off the potential risks of getting Covid, I elected to start getting back into real shape almost two years ago. Since beginning my consistent workouts and diet, I dropped more than 5” in my waist, and only lost about 9 lbs on the scale. Body shape has changed and cost me a fortune in alterations and new clothes… nice problem to have.

        I learned in the last 10 days that I have a tumor on one kidney… meeting with surgeon today and likely receiving a nephrectomy in the next couple of weeks. Your statement about the gap in nutritional space is true. I can’t locate any local sports nutritionist or dietician that can provide me any guidance. I would really like to know how to design a healthy eating program that will allow me to maintain my muscle mass when I won’t be able to consume at least 140 grams of protein/day. I am guessing the doctors will be telling me to keep it around 60 grams at most.

        I don’t do instagram, so I can’t communicate with you on that platform… if there is anyone, any website, any source of information that I can lean on, it would be appreciated. I am in the Phoenix/Scottsdale, AZ area… not sure if that is helpful.

        Again, thank you for posting your story. It is inspiring.

        1. Thanks for reaching out, Howard, and sharing your story. I’ll send you an email so we can communicate there.

  3. I’m so glad I came across your story, it’s really inspiring! I’m likely going to have my right kidney removed this summer and have struggled to find guidelines for protein intake and exercise restrictions for my situation. I want to go through BLET next year which is very crossfit heavy (rhabdo is always in the back of my mind) and also wanted to build noticeable muscle. How long did it take for you to start seeing results with a restricted protein diet? And how much did you take? Any advice would be greatly appreciated and again, thank you for sharing your story and being an inspiration!

    1. I’m humbled to know that you found my story inspiring! Thank you for engaging with me. I have lots of advice to share. Feel free to email me or message me on IG at @stillwellfitness so we can talk 1 on 1.

  4. Annamarya, I cried while I read your story. I have been skinny my entire life. I haven’t done much about it because I have one kidney (I had kidney cancer when I was 23). I started a clean bulking journey 8 months ago, and I have seen some gains (have gone from 135 to 151 pounds). But my problem is that my annual bloodwork just came back, and my kidney function markers are elevated compared to before I started weightlifting. I’m left wondering how I can balance my kidney health with my desire to gain a few more pounds (my goal is 160). Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    1. First of all, sending you big hugs right now. Secondly, the more muscle you put on, the more your levels will seem elevated, so blood draws can sometimes be deceiving. So, I’d say it’s important to do routine 24-hour urine tests to get a better sense of kidney health, and to find a nephrologist or urologist familiar with sports medicine and working with athletes. In regard to balancing your kidney health, I would suggest staying away from protein powders, protein-enhanced foods, and most supplements. These will make your kidney work much harder, even with increased water intake. I would suggest getting all of your protein naturally from whole foods and lean meats.

      I do offer online coaching services, so if you’re looking for a trainer who has experience and knowledge with your concerns, let me know. Otherwise, I’m here to answer whatever questions you have.

  5. Hello like others on here I too am looking to bulk up with only having one kidney as I gave one away I am finding it very difficult to gain back what I had I went from 200 to 167 in like a week or two after surgery
    Any info would help

    Thank you

    1. Hi Kevin, thanks for engaging with my posts. I’d love to chat with you more about your situation. My general thoughts I’ve shared with others would apply, but we can talk specifically if you don’t mind I email you. Let me know!

  6. I’m 22 was happy with my life but sudden got to that there is a tumor in my right kidney and I’m having 5th stage kidney failure. I operated with CKD now what are my chances to comeback strong with new transplant

    1. I think you can come back strong, as long as you work with your doctor. Sending you positive vibes.

  7. Aloha Annamariya,

    I am 59 my son is 22. I gave him a kidney 16 yrs ago.

    I have been on a health journey for yrs. Hate the labels so I am mostly WFPB w/ egg whites and tuna.

    My son recently started working out but has NO place to find out what to eat to build his body w.o. as you put it; copious amounts of protein.

    Do you have any words of wisdom and can you help steer him away from this insane (but effective for building) diet of steak, whey, and greens only?

    I’m all for the greens and he cheats w/ Almond butter and celery as his snack.

    Thank you for your inspiration.

    Blessings to you,
    Jodie Johns

    1. Hi Jodie. Thank you for connecting with me. I share a lot of tips on my Instagram account, @stillwellfitness. But there are many ways for him to get the protein he needs without overworking his kidneys. Have him reach out to me, and I can have a chat with him.

  8. Hello. I cannot find your IG. I donated my kidney last year to my dad and I am now afraid I cannot lose weight and be lean. What’s your new IG? I’d like to connect.

  9. Thank you, for your article- you are so Inspiring. My son is starting to get into bodybuilding, but was told that he will
    have to stop taking and eating all the protein that he is consuming, since he’s donating a kidney to his mom. Are you able to sent us information on the kind of food you were able to eat. Thank you! John

    1. Thank you for your kind words! And absolutely! I’ve wrote about my nutrition/diet on my blog at https://www.stillwellfit.com/blog and shared info on my Instagram at Instagram.com/stillwellfitness. Those are the best places to find my personal story. But I’ll reach out privately too.

  10. Very useful information, I believe lack of fluid consumption is the number one cause. sufficient amount of water daily can prevent stones and can ensure kidney health.

    1. Yes! Let’s talk more. You can reach out to me via my site, stillwellfit.com. I’d love to hear your story.

  11. WNBF pro figure here,

    Just had my kidney removed February 14th. The military urologist told me I can never compete again. I’m struggling mentally and physically. They want me to reduce my protein intake and eat a close to vegan diet (they being my internal medicine doc) I read where you said that protein intake needed to be reduced. How do I build muscle if I can’t follow a protein rich diet to build and maintain muscle. Are there alternatives, like maybe plant protein which isn’t as great as whey but can Atleast suffice?


    1. Firstly, sending huge hugs. Secondly, there are so many ways to build muscle without having to eat a high-protein diet, and without having to go completely vegan. Also, they’re completely wrong about never competing again. I’d love to chat with you 1:1. I’ll find you on IG.

  12. I would love to connect! I used to compete in obstacle course races but after donating my kidney last year I struggle with fatigue and making gains. I don’t have an instagram but can leave my email [email protected].

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