How at 29, Linzi Atkinson’s life was turned upside down following kidney cancer and then given a new direction.
Less than six months ago, I was a relatively normal 29-year-old; juggling my career, a busy social life in Manchester and a potential move to Leeds for my job. Then in May this year my life completely changed when I was diagnosed with a cancerous kidney tumour. This came as a complete shock as I was led to believe my symptoms were that of kidney stones, what I would have given for that to really be the case.
My symptoms started about six weeks prior to my diagnosis, where on a few occasions I had found some blood in my urine. I made several trips to the doctor over the following month where I was told there was nothing to worry about, however after my third visit the doctor suggested I have an ultrasound before they could consider referring me to a urologist. Shortly after I developed some pain which followed a night out on the tiles for a friend’s hen party over May bank holiday weekend, this wasn’t what I needed on top of a massive hangover! I was convinced I had a urinary tract infection, as I had a pain in the left side of my back coupled with heavily concentrated blood in my urine, however after 24 hours of anti-biotics and a whole lot of cranberry juice later, my pain was worsening. Another trip to the doctor raised suspicions of kidney stones and I was told to wait out the pain until my ultrasound appointment the following week. Not satisfied with the outcome, and being impatient at the fact that this would prevent me from going to work and socialising, I decided to pay the excess on my medical insurance that I receive through work and made an appointment with a Urologist at The Spire hospital in Didsbury.
I was amazed at the care I received privately; I got an appointment the next morning and within an hour I had given urine and blood samples, and undertaken a CT scan. The consultant, who was an expert in kidney stones, was convinced I had them and prepared to operate on me that very same night. However, a call at about 3pm informed me that the radiographer had seen a swelling on my kidney and my consultant was reluctant to go through with the operation. The next day I had another CT scan, this time with a contrast (dye in my blood) and was told I would hear the outcome in the next week. The next morning, a Friday, I was asked to come in to see my consultant at 6pm that evening. Being completely oblivious to how serious this would become, my flatmate and I dressed up for a meal out as I had been a bit of a recluse all week and fancied a meal at a restaurant. We casually strolled into the doctor’s office, expecting to be told the options for removing the kidney stones. Instead I was told a growth had been found on my kidney and there was a possibility it could be a tumour, and my heart stopped. I honestly can’t remember too much of what was discussed, except it was highly likely I would lose my left kidney and I needed further tests to determine if this was a cyst, benign tumour or cancerous tumour. I just remember physically shaking from the shock and the overwhelming feeling of disbelief. After a call to my Mum and a few tears, my flatmate drove me the hour and a half journey home to the Lake District so I could be with my family.
The days that followed were a blur but we were all convinced this would be a cyst or benign tumour, it couldn’t be cancer surely? I was young, fit and well and this kind of thing just happen ed to old people. My Mum escorted me to another CT scan with contrast on the Monday and we had to wait until the Thursday to discuss the results with another consultant, who was an expert in this field. My Mum said she twigged as soon as she saw the tissues on the consultant’s desk and he asked if we had any history of tumours or cancer in the family. Again, it is a blur and I don’t remember much of what was discussed, all I knew was I had a 7cm tumour on my left kidney that they believed to be cancerous and this wasn’t an everyday case. The consultant and his colleagues were apparently perplexed over the results of my scan, as this just didn’t happen to women of my age. It was decided that ten days later I would have keyhole surgery at the Manchester Royal Infirmary to remove my kidney, tumour and some potentially enlarged lymph nodes. I was told that these lymph nodes looked dangerously close to the main vein and artery to my heart and there was no guarantee they could remove all of these if it wasn’t safe to do so. I cried, my Mum cried, and we barely spoke on the ninety-minute journey back to Kendal. My Stepdad and sister were waiting at home, and we spent the next hour or so just sobbing. It took me a few days to accept the news and to speak to anyone who wasn’t my family. I was afraid of picking up the Macmillan Kidney Cancer booklet the consultant had given me, as I kind of didn’t want to know what might happen. Flicking through I couldn’t see a photo of anyone remotely close to my age, as I’d been told many times this just didn’t really happen to people under 60, let alone 30. But it did and it was, and I was the unlucky one who had developed kidney cancer at just 29.
Less than a week later, on the eve of my pre-operative assessment, I received a call from my consultant and I was told my operation wouldn’t be going ahead, as they believed the best chance of a cure and the safest method to remove my lymph nodes would be via open surgery at The Christie on the NHS. I was beyond devastated, it seemed every time I heard from the doctors I was just getting more bad news. It was agonising to be told I may have to wait up to another four weeks for my new operation and I couldn’t even see my new consultant for another week. The realisation that my six-week recovery would be a minimum of twelve weeks, and four small scars would become one large scar across my abdomen was just the worst. I just had to keep thinking that this was going to save my life and there was a 100% guarantee all the lymph nodes and tissue could be removed. I somehow accepted my fate and tried my best to think positive, that I was going to get better and I had decades left to live.
Over the next week I was very practical; I started making arrangements to move out of my flat in Manchester, cancelled my holiday to Barcelona and got my finances in order. I had only been in my new job at a retail marketing agency in Leeds for four months and was planning to move there, but that was all put on hold. I prepared for the fact that I might not be able to work for a while and that I would have to move home to Kendal after living away for 7 years. Life was changing and I hated it. I’d gone from being the life and soul of the party to someone who wouldn’t be going to any parties for a long time.
Fast forward three and a half weeks and I underwent a four-hour operation under the care of one of the top Professors at The Christie on 12th June. I really hadn’t prepared for how I might feel after my surgery but I hadn’t anticipated it to be the worst week of my life. I had one of the most painful abdominal surgeries you can have, a transabdominal nephrectomy, they had to cut through muscles and nerves to get to my lymph nodes and kidney. The pain was horrendous, I remember waking up in the recovery room and being dazed from my anaesthetic. They asked me to rate my pain from 0 to 10, it was a solid 10. The epidural they had given me wasn’t even taking the edge off so
morphine was required, a lot of it. It made me itch all over and I couldn’t feel my legs as they were numb from the epidural. I was tired, dazed and confused, but kind of relieved it was over. Little did I know the worst was yet to come. I think it’s important for me to be honest here as I really went into this operation with a distorted view of how I would feel, I wish I had been given a little insight into what to expect. The next few days consisted of sleepless nights, night terrors (from the strong intravenous painkillers I was on) and feeling very uncomfortable. Every single thing I did was a huge effort and took everything out of me, I didn’t walk for five days and when I did it was a real struggle. I had a catheter in for five days and needed assistance to wash myself, sit up in bed and brush my hair. I was grateful for the twice daily visits I had from family and friends.
I didn’t eat for about four days and when I did it was just easy to eat foods like custard, yoghurt and mashed potato with gravy, I wasn’t impressed by the quality of food. Now I know an NHS Ward at The Christie isn’t exactly The Ritz but I wanted food that was going to help me recover and a few overcooked vegetables with dinner wasn’t going to cut it. I asked my family and friends to bring me fresh fruit and juices and on Father’s Day when my Dad came to visit he brought me lots of homemade smoothies. He is
a chef and doesn’t do things by halves, so about fifteen different ingredients had gone into these smoothies, from kale to chia seeds, mango to pineapple. They tasted amazing and I just wanted to eat and drink foods that were good for me to help me recover. My attitude towards food had changed and this was cemented by a conversation I had with a man in the rose garden of the hospital. He explained to me how pharmaceutical companies were exploiting cancer patients and we should be using food to help heal our bodies, treat and prevent cancer. Now I know food is not a substitute for drugs and medicines but I really do believe that certain plants on this Earth are designed to heal us. The modern medicine that we take for granted wasn’t available centuries ago and people survived on what this planet naturally provided, so I decided I was going to incorporate natural healing foods into my diet as much as possible.
My blogging journey
Once discharged from hospital I sent my Mum and sister out shopping to stock up on fruits. vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean proteins and wholegrains. I found my taste buds had changed, I was craving only fresh and homemade produce. I didn’t want anything processed or pre-packaged. I found a new love for avocado and it became a daily staple in my diet. I had very little energy and even just having a shower or making lunch would completely take it out of me, so much so that I needed a two hour nap
every day to recover from doing the simplest of things. To keep me occupied I started experimenting with recipes, scanning Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration and trying alternative ingredients which were healthier than what I had used previously. I wasn’t even supposed to be cooking according to my recovery guide from the hospital, but I just wanted to do something to help around the house and pass the time.
About 11 days after I returned home from hospital, I was seriously fed up. I was bored of watching TV, I was in horrendous pain still and I just felt so helpless. I needed something to focus on as I could feel myself becoming depressed. After two days of crying and feeling sorry for myself, I had a conversation with my Dad as well as my brother (who had a blog of his own) and decided to put what energy I had into a blog about my journey and the recipes I was creating. I wanted to spread the word about what food could do for your health and for cancer in particular. I felt the foods I was eating were aiding my recovery and giving me much needed energy. I also wanted to blog about the Reiki treatment I was having at my local Cancer Care centre as that had helped me feel better both physically and
emotionally. Once the blog was created I was excited to get up in the morning and write, make design tweaks to my website and experimenting with recipes I could use. I spent the next four weeks writing content, proof reading and testing my site. I decided not to launch it until after my consultation at The Christie to discuss the results of my operation. Luckily, I was told I needed no further treatment and was given the all clear, the lymph nodes had turned out not to be cancerous and my tumour was categorised as a T2. I was told I was now low risk and it was unlikely I would develop this type of cancer again, it was the best news I could have hoped to hear.
Four days later I launched by blog via a Facebook post and the response to my first post was overwhelming. I cannot explain how good it feels to share my experience and to help others in the process, especially when I’ve worked so hard to create the blog. Since then I have been contacted by people with similar conditions and operations asking for advice, as well as received photos of my recipes that people have tried. I know I am very lucky to be on the road to recovery after a relatively short spell of cancer, and there are lots of other people with Kidney Cancer who aren’t quite as fortunate. What I hope to achieve with my blog is to inspire other people to become healthier and happier versions of themselves. So, whether that be anyone with kidney cancer, other types of cancer, those recovering from surgery or anyone who wants to become healthier, I want to help people to live and eat better.
You can find my blog at www.linziloves.com or like ‘Linzi Loves Blog’ on Facebook or follow me on Instagram @linzi.loves
We are delighted to say, Linzi has teamed up with Kidney Cancer UK to offer a series of exclusive videos on healthy eating plus we will be releasing the video of Linzi talking about her journey shortly.