CURE Community Vlog: Taking Control Over a Cancer Diagnosis
“I thought, you know what I have control right now: if I'm going to laugh, if I'm going to enjoy my family, or if I'm going to hide in a corner and cry all day. I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to let cancer do that to me.”
BY Salima Witt
PUBLISHED April 21, 2020
Hi, my name is Salima Witt. I'm a stage 3 renal cell carcinoma cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in the summer of 2018, completely Incidentally. I felt great. I had no symptoms. I went to the ER for a urinary tract infection. You know, in our 40s us women we get different estrogen levels and things can change. Every year I went for ultrasounds of my uterus. I did everything right. I went for mammograms every year. I went for my physical every year. I didn't have any symptoms and was pretty active. I've not smoked. I don't even drink.
So, you can imagine – as well as I think anybody who gets diagnosed with cancer – but getting diagnosed incidentally without any symptoms, it's like just a super sucker punch in the stomach. And I went to the ER for that, totally unrelated to cancer, and never had my kidneys exam. I never had my kidneys looked at my physical, my bloodwork was always normal. And they tell me that I have an 8.8-centimeter tumor in my left kidney. My initial reaction was of denial. Kind of like, “Oh, it's probably a cyst, liquid filled. This is this is nothing.” And so, I remember asking the ER doctor saying, “Oh, you mean like a cyst?” And he says, “No, I mean, like a hard mass.”
Taken by surprise, I go home. I told my husband and we were both kind of in denial for a day or two asking, what is going on?” And this is over the weekend. We can't speak to any doctors. And as I went online to reputable sites – Kidney Cancer Association of America, American Cancer Society – these sites that were reputable seeing that most tumors of the kidney were cancerous. I started thinking “No, this is something.”
I was fortunate in our health care system to get an appointment with a urologist here at UC (University of California) San Diego. In the UCLA systems here in California, there's a bunch of UC hospitals and the one closest to me is there. Pretty much within about a week or 10 days, I got an appointment, redid the CAT scan. The team there said, “Yeah, we believe this is cancer. Your entire kidney needs to come out.”
My whole world turned upside down. And within 11 days of my initial finding out I was there, getting surgery and I got my kidney taken out on Sept. 5, 2018.
The surgery went well. Nothing unprecedented happened, it was fine. They told me to come back in a week for pathology. And during that time your anxiety can run wild. And that train of anxiety, you can just go off the tracks with that. And it's, I think, very important for all of us when we were diagnosed with cancer, and I am not any better it happened to me, too. I was like oh my gosh, and honestly feeling, I'm going to die. I have two kids. I have a husband; I've been married 20 years. I have a beautiful life.
And that's what just kept entering my mind. And finally, when I got a grip of myself, because getting a cancer diagnosis is very daunting. And it's extremely frightening and you feel like you've lost complete control of your life. And it's important that you let that anxiety and all that and stop it, it's not true. You do have some control and other things you can control, focus on that. So, when the train goes off the tracks and you're just completely lost in future thoughts, “what if, what if, what if.” I regained my sanity by staying in the now and saying, “Okay, what can I do to help myself right now?” Because I felt so just completely defeated and that this was it at 45 years old, I'm going to pass.
I came in about 10 days after surgery and they told me that it was in fact pT3a renal cell carcinoma and they had to watch me now because you know, it's a bit advanced. They said every three months you're going to have to come back and you're going to have to do CAT scans. I was not metastatic. I didn't have to get any immunotherapy or anything like that, thank goodness. And now was go home, basically the hospital just like after all that you go home and see you in three months.
And you know, telling my children and telling my husband. What was extremely important for me was to regain, like I was saying earlier, some sense of control. We could ask ourselves 1,000 times how did this happen? How did I get this? This isn't in my family. There's no cancer in my family. This isn't a hereditary type. I'm not a smoker. I'm not a drinker. I'm not of heavyweight, my blood pressure is normal. I would ask myself and go through all these. Don't ask yourself questions that you don't have answers to, just move forward.
I found a TED talk of Dr. William Lee, and it was an eat to beat disease and it made sense to me. It was basically about how food can hurt us. It can also help us. Not saying I'm not a modern medicine girl, I will pop immunotherapy. Give it to me. What I need to do, by doctor's recommendation, I will, but what can I do at home? and as soon as I got the clear, at six weeks after surgery, I started exercising more, and not too much. But I started five to six days a week of at least a half hour regimen, whatever it was. Here I live in San Diego and fortunately I have good weather. But I've also lived in Canada, you can get a treadmill at home, you can do yoga at home, you can go and do that out, especially now with COVID.
It was important for me to move the mind, get the body healthy, and my state of mind healthy. So, yoga and meditation a couple days a week, swimming a couple days a week, weights a couple days a week, and again, to our best ability. Not the stuff like online, you see these people doing burpees and all this crazy stuff. I'm 47 years old. If you can do it great. And if you can't, whatever, do what you can.
And I started eating more vegetables, not to say that my life is like, disgusting brussel sprouts every day. But it really was important to me to feed my body healthily and to know that if, God forbid, this came back, I had done everything in my power. I felt that I did what I could and that was extremely important to me. So, for the first three months, I had started this regimen. I had started doing more green shakes and I mean gross green shakes like broccoli, but I added some good things mangoes, apples things that. I did a lot of reading. And I wanted to keep my one good kidney well, so, you know, not drinking wasn't in part of my menu because I never really did, but other things.
I went for my first CAT scan with the greatest anxiety. I'm an anxious person by nature. And that's a tough one. It's dreadful. You think the worst. It's very easy for our brains to go there. And fortunately, I’m free of cancer, and I thought what I'm doing is working, or maybe what I'm doing isn't working, but I feel good at least. So I'll continue. And up to this day, it's two years later, almost, that's what I've been doing. And my last CAT scan was just three weeks ago and that one was clear. I've had seven CAT scans. And I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.
I think that, for me, and for all of us that are suffering through a cancer, like I said earlier, I think if there's any advice through this, it's hard for me even when I go for CAT scans, it affects everyone in my family. You're not alone. A lot of people, millions of people have gone through this. And they're strong, and they’re heroes, and I look up to them. And I think, “Look at all these people, they're doing it, they’re trucking on.
Fight and don't give up. And stay in the now. Take a breath, you know, when you get this diagnosis, it's like, I don't know what other people felt, but for me it was denial to be quite frankly. I thought no way. And when you do regain your senses off the roller coaster ride, it is a daunting and scary word. But you do have control over some choices that you make. You have control over how you handle it. If anything, I thought you know what I have control right now if I'm going to laugh, if I'm going to enjoy my family, or if I'm going to hide in a corner and cry all day. I'm not going to do that. I'm not gonna let cancer do that to me.
And so that's the way I'm choosing to do it. And some days it's hard. Some days I do have some time and there is some worry. But I try to regain that composure and say, “Hey, stop that.” Don't do that. And I hope that I hope that that helps.