Kidney cancer diagnosis stories: the news no one wants to hear

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Following his kidney cancer diagnosis, George Root knew his humor would not cure his cancer, but he knew that using humor to cope with cancer would definitely help him.

Kidney cancer diagnosis stories: the news no one wants to hear. A photo of a priest with his hand on this chin.

Kidney cancer diagnosis stories: the news no one wants to hear

George Root knew his temperament and quirky, irreverent humor would not cure his stage IV renal cell carcinoma. Still, he soon realized using his humor to cope with a kidney cancer diagnosis would help him. Here is a short collection of his kidney cancer diagnosis stories.

The words no one wants to hear their doctor say: 'you have kidney cancer'

The day I was diagnosed with stage IV renal cell carcinoma was one of the most devastating of my life. 

The first of my kidney cancer diagnosis stories begins with my mon: a little old Polish lady who has religion as her first line of defense when it comes to hearing anything she considers bad news. 

On a personal level, I am, what some would call, an evangelical atheist.  Although I despise religion, I understand that for many people, religion can help them cope with a kidney cancer diagnosis and many other challenges that life throws at us. I will usually talk respectfully to my mom about religion because she is my mom. 

The first short conversation I had with my mom was literally the second after I was diagnosed. And that awkward conversation will stay with me forever. In fact, I remember more about that conversation with my mom than what my oncologist said to me after:  'you have kidney cancer.'

My wife and I, tears in our eyes, just walked out of the oncologist’s office, and we told our son and mom what the doctor said. My mother started crying and initiated a short but memorable conversation.

Mom: “You need to go see a priest.”

Me: “No, mom. I am not dead, and a priest is not trained to cure cancer.”

She never responded to my response, and although we have not talked about that conversation since then, I know she was hurt.

When I write these kidney cancer diagnosis stories down, my answer seems really abrupt and self-assured. The reality is that by telling my mom, I rejected her only defense mechanism in times like this was extremely difficult for me to do.

Kidney cancer diagnosis stories: 'George, you can't laugh at kidney cancer.'

After a week of crying, I suddenly realized I wasn’t going to allow my kidney cancer diagnosis to define who I was. I wanted to make my kidney cancer diagnosis part of my life story but not the overriding theme of my life.


Using humor to cope with cancer was going to be key to making this happen.

It is difficult for people who do not have cancer to talk to those of us who do. No matter who you are, that initial diagnosis can feel like a death sentence. But when you actually start battling, you realize that your chances are much better than you thought. After all of the treatment I went through, I expected to know a lot more about my condition than I really did.But cancer study is so dynamic that the patient never really knows a fraction of what is going on. However, that does not stop people from initiating potentially uncomfortable conversations that can sometimes lead nowhere.

Educating my family and friends through kidney cancer diagnosis stories

One of the more touching aspects of getting kidney cancer was realizing that my family and friends were just as concerned as I was. I had surgery about two weeks after my diagnosis and was home for a few weeks to recover. While recovering, I started having difficult conversations with my friends that made me realize how little I knew about what was going on. One of those conversations sticks in my head to this day.

My friend: “So what is next?”

Me: “I heal and then start chemo.”

My friend: “You mean radiation and losing your hair and everything?”

Me: “I am not sure.”

My friend: “How can you not be sure about your treatment?”

Me: “I wish I could tell you.”

The conversation ended at that point because my friend realized I felt backed into a corner. But I walked away from that conversation, realizing I was terrified of what was happening.  And that I was not asking nearly enough questions. After that point, I asked my doctors a lot of questions, and I still do.

Can humor be a defense mechanism for kidney cancer?

When you are faced with a disease like kidney cancer, your mind immediately puts in defense mechanisms that are natural to your personality. 

After my fear started to subside, I turned to write kidney cancer diagnosis stories and my sense of humor to keep a level head. To this day, my sense of humor has allowed me not to take any medication for anxiety and depression stemming from my cancer for extended periods. The only positive about having kidney cancer I can think of is being able to get away with making cancer jokes.

My other reactions to my kidney cancer diagnosis —anger, depression, suppression, denial—all took a little piece of me with them. They took a toll on my mental health and well-being. Each of these feelings made me feel just a little less human. In contrast, humor and laughter made me more open to ideas, more inviting to the people around me, and even just that little bit stronger on the inside. Laughter proved to me that, even as cancer was devastating my body and my spirit challenged, I was still a vital human

Laughing at unusual chemo side effects

During yet another round of chemo and bloodwork at the hospital, I was feeling awful. My mouth felt like I'd burned it on hot coffee, except that it included a taste so bad it made me nauseous, a not uncommon feeling during cancer treatment. 

I told one of my favorite nurses that my mouth was on fire, and she said, "stick out your tongue." Then she said, "Have you recently eaten anything orange?" 

I said no. 

She said, "hmm, interesting," and called another nurse over to have a look. And then she called another nurse. Keep in mind that this was in a tiny chemo treatment room. It was packed full to the brim, with about six patients, plus families plus four nurses. So, in no time at all, my orange tongue had been examined by four nurses, the lab tech, the receptionist, seven little old ladies, four little old men, two doctors, and a drug salesman.

Everyone in the room, except the pharmaceutical salesman, thought a bright fuzzy orange tongue was kind of interesting. On the other hand, the salesman looked a little queasy, but since everyone else was looking, he thought, what the heck?  

Finally, I told the doctor, "The words you NEVER want to hear from your car mechanic or oncologist are 'Hey, everybody, look at this!'" 

That made him and everyone else crack up, laughing. And then he told me I had oral thrush, which, as it turned out, is a common fungal infection for chemo patients. But he'd never heard of orange thrush; because it is usually white. So I spent a week with mouthwash and anti-fungal drugs, which made everything taste like burnt paper mache. I figured my orange tongue was probably the feature topic in that year's "weird cancer patients" seminar, somewhere nice, like Cancun or Miami.

How to deal with random strangers with stores about my kidney cancer diagnosis

A month or so after my first cancer surgery a woman stopped me in the street when I was out shopping. 

She asked me, ‘Can you spare a few minutes for cancer research?’‘

All right,’ I wryly replied, ‘but we won’t get much done.’

I remembered seeing this joke on television once, and when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t help myself. 

I don’t want a benefit for my kidney diagnosis

One of the things no doctor or specialist will tell you when you are diagnosed with kidney cancer is that you will lose a lot of money. You will lose time at work, have to pay some bills (even if you have insurance) that will cost a lot, and start to feel the financial pinch almost immediately. My wife and I do not have any money in savings, so we wound up in a tough spot after about six months.

Through all of it, I refused any charity. But there came a time when my family needed help, so I swallowed my pride. When I finally relented to my friends’ request to do a benefit, I got involved in a conversation I never expected.

Me: “Fine. We need help. What kind of benefit are you thinking of?”

My friend: “We are going to put together a day of hockey games at the local arena, do auctions, bring in celebrities, take donations, and have a great time.”

Me: “What? How long have you been planning this?”

My friend: “Since you first told us you were sick.”

Me: “I don’t believe it.”

My friend: “Oh, and the mayor is going to sign a city declaration naming the day of your benefit after you.”

Find your kidney cancer tribe, let the fakers go

I couldn’t talk anymore for a while after that or write any more kidney cancer diagnosis stories. One thing I have always maintained about getting kidney cancer still holds true today. You will find out who your real friends are, and you will find out who has been faking. Like me, you will experience the pain of unsupportive friends during illness.

Let the fakers go and stick to the people in your life who truly care. Remembering that every day since my kidney cancer diagnosis has helped me to have so many more wonderfully awkward conversations with people I never knew cared so much about me.

Article by
George Root

George Root III, the author of "Kidney cancer diagnosis stories: the one about the priest," was an accomplished author, including The Caleb Devin Chronicles. He called the wilds of Western New York home, where he actually enjoyed Western New York winters. He dabbled in non-fiction, but his passion was science fantasy, science fiction, and Godzilla. George died on March 7th, 2019.


It is difficult for people who do not have cancer to talk to those of us who do. No matter who you are, that initial diagnosis can feel like a death sentence. | ©ZoneCreative / Adobe Stock