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Croatia: Kidney Calamity

by | Feb 6, 2024 | Kidney Cancer UK News, Personal Stories - Blogs | 0 comments

A blog for KidneyCancer Awareness Week 2024 by Andrew Luff

Me supporting the mighty Cambridge United in a shock FA Cup win at Newcastle Jan 2022.

June 2015, all seemed to be going well. I was 54 and, I thought, in very good health. I’d had a bit of a cancer scare earlier that year having undergone minor surgery to remove a mole on my back. It turned out to be completely harmless. Little did I know at that time they were looking in the wrong place.

As normal for me in the summer, I’d been playing lots of tennis, including competitive tennis, in the local LTA league. It was after a tennis match when I noticed a minor pain in my lower right side abdominal muscle. I’d assumed I had strained a muscle playing tennis. In addition, I noticed my urine was a strange dark colour. The following day the urine colour returned to normal and, although the abdominal pain remained it was just a minor dull ache, so I did nothing. It seemed insignificant. I didn’t even mention either issue to my wife (Janet).

*Hvar, Croatia, 16th July 2015. 30-minutes later I was collapsing in pain.

Mid July 2015 my wife Janet and I set off for our summer holiday, a tour of Croatian islands starting at the beautiful island of Hvar. Having flown to Split and then taken the ferry to Hvar, we arrived early evening. We set off into town to find a restaurant (see pic right* ). I’d eaten the main course and enjoyed some wine when I noticed the abdominal ache had become much more of a pain. I headed off to the bathroom, but the pain intensified. I struggled back to the table. The colour had drained from my face, so Janet was very concerned. She phoned the hotel who sent a car to pick us up.

The lady who picked us up from the small family run hotel we were staying at, took a look at me and said I needed to go to the island hospital. She explained that she worked there as a nurse. She took us to the hospital by which time I was in so much pain I would have struggled to remember my own name. I was pumped full of various painkillers until the pain eventually subsided at way past midnight. I was advised that I had suspected kidney stones and was invited to come back the following day for an ultrasound scan.

We went back the next morning. I remember seeing the expression of the man undertaking the scan, change as he looked at his screen. He asked me if I was on my own. I explained my wife was waiting outside. He jumped up and called her in then told me he had found a large mass on my right kidney the size of an orange. It was only when he said ‘the prognosis is normally good’ that I began (only just began) to understand this was serious.

The following day I was seen by two doctors the second of which told me this condition could not be dealt with at this small island hospital. I needed to go to the main hospital in Split immediately. Janet cancelled the rest of the holiday, booked a ferry ticket and found somewhere to stay in Split.

In Spilt we met our apartment owner to obtain the keys. We explained the situation. She offered to take us. After an x-ray I met the consultant. He advised I needed urgent medical treatment and should travel home. He gave us paperwork and a copy of the x-ray.

We managed to get the last two seats on a flight to Stansted a day later. On return I booked an urgent GP appointment. A ‘rapid referral’ to the hospital was made meaning I would be contacted within two weeks. I’d been a bit out of breath and had cramp in my right leg. The GP took a blood test. A few hours later I received an urgent call from GP surgery. I must go to A&E. An urgent CT scan found blood clots in my lungs. I was seen by a specialist consultant and treated with blood thinning injections. I learned that blood clots were often a side effect of a tumour. Unbelievable, just a week earlier I’d been fit and healthy.

About a week later I had my appointment with the Urology Consultant. The meeting was brief. I was advised I needed surgery and soon. It would be undertaken within four weeks. Of course, the wait was a few weeks longer. With a ticking time bomb inside you, the last thing you want to hear about is a delay.

Andy and Janet Luff South Africa, Dec 2023

Andy and Janet Luff

I was admitted to hospital a few weeks later. On the morning of the planned surgery, I received a visit at my bedside from the surgeon. He had reviewed my case and, given the size of the tumour and proximity to the renal artery he thought open surgery would be safer than the proposed keyhole surgery. Of course, recovery would take much longer. What was my view! I took his advice. As he left, he remarked that such surgery was normally curative.

So, on 14th September 2015, a date I will never forget, I found myself being wheeled into an operating theatre. It was a weird experience. I felt as if I was a third party observing the process. First up was the epidural. With a warning if it went wrong I could be disabled for life! Then the anaesthetist said ‘Think of somewhere nice for your dreams’. That’s it. I remember nothing else from the operating theatre.

I came round to find several people looking at me. I asked why there was a delay and when would the operation start. I was told I’d had the operation, three and a half hours in theatre! For me it had been the blink of an eye. I was in the ICU recovery unit. I knew I would face something of an emotional roller coaster, but it happens regardless. I was on an emotional high at this point. Was that it? Tumour removed. I didn’t even feel any pain. Janet and my sister were permitted a quick visit.

It is a long path to physical and mental recovery from major surgery. During some 9 or 10 days in hospital, I had plenty of time to think about what I’d been through and what the future may hold. I just craved a return to normality. I was instructed by the hospital physio, to get up and walk. I wandered around the ward talking to other patients and began to realise that, compared to many, I’d had it easy!

A follow up meeting with a consultant (I didn’t get to see the actual surgeon again until about a year later) confirmed all had gone well. The tumour was cancer, a clear cell carcinoma, at stage 3(a). No evidence that it had spread was good news as was the advice that I could function perfectly well on one kidney and could still enjoy a beer or three! I would receive a CT scan every six months reducing to annual and now only once every two years (I opted for an ultrasound scan in-between for peace of mind).

So, over eight years later I’m enjoying life, playing more tennis and, yes, working my way through the bucket list now as I head towards full retirement. I’m so grateful for the amazing help and support I received on the way from the hotel staff and doctors in Croatia, support from friends, my sister and my amazing wife Janet without whom I could not have coped. Finally, I thank my NHS hospital surgeon who, literally, saved my life.

<a href="" target="_self">Malcolm Packer</a>

Malcolm Packer

Malcolm is Chief Executive Officer at Kidney Cancer UK and Kidney Cancer Scotland and has worked with the charity in various capacities for over 15 years.