I Was About to Lose My Battle with Kidney Cancer—Until This New Treatment Saved My Life

After Ed Doelp was diagnosed with kidney cancer, he had no idea it would take several surgeries, failed treatments, and nearly six years before he would find an answer.

Edward DoelpCourtesy Edward Doelp

In 2012, Edward Doelp, 65, was getting ready for his annual physical when he noticed he had lost about 15 pounds. The home inspector from Galloway Township, New Jersey, had recently cut back on beer and assumed that was the reason he was lighter. At the appointment, his doctor wasn’t so sure. Sudden weight loss—especially that much—can be a bad sign, much like these 10 surprising symptoms that turned out to be cancer. Lab tests underscored the doctor’s concerns, and he ordered an ultrasound. Two days later while at work, Doelp got the bad news: “The doctor said I had stage three kidney cancer. I fell to my knees, and he asked if I was still on the line. I didn’t know what to say.” That was the start of a six-year odyssey of failed treatments that, finally, led to the drug that saved his life.

Doelp went to a nephrologist (kidney specialist) who explained that the cancer would need to be dealt with immediately. The tests had shown that the tumor in his left kidney had triggered a blood clot that could be heading toward his heart.

Two weeks later, surgeons removed Doelp’s kidney; they were confident they had gotten all of the cancer. He joined a 12-month clinical trial to prevent recurrence of Doelp’s cancer, renal cell carcinoma, which is the most common form of kidney cancer and mostly affects men over 50. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, although smoking and obesity can increase the risk. Additionally, there are 10 hidden signs of kidney cancer most people are likely to ignore.

At the end of the year, Doelpe got an MRI and CAT scan to check his progress. “They saw a small shadow on my right lung at that point,” he says, “and I asked them to retest me in three months instead of six, to see if it grew.” On the next scan, the tumor had grown exponentially, and doctors chose to remove it surgically.

Three months later, Doelp’s doctors found more cancer, this time in his liver. Doctors tried to kill the tumor by cutting off its blood supply (called embolization), but the procedure didn’t work. “That only seemed to make it angrier and more aggressive,” Doelp says. It was then that doctors made the decision to operate, removing 60 percent of his liver. When the cancer recurred three months after surgery near the same spot—this time in the lymph nodes—doctors reopened the surgery site to remove his nodes. “My surgeon said this is it, we can’t cut you open anymore. That’s when we started looking for clinical trials.”

Doelp’s doctors eventually referred him to the Fox Chase Cancer Center for a clinical trial with the drug Keytruda, a form of immunotherapy. The therapy helps a patient’s own immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. The treatment is given by infusion every three weeks and lasts about half an hour.

Luckily, the clinical trial started working quickly to shrink Doelp’s tumors. Within two months, doctors said they couldn’t see anything on the scans. “There was no evidence of disease. All of the doctors were smiling,” Doelp recalls. “My wife and I jumped up and down, traded high fives, and cried. I’ll never forget that day.” He’s still on the clinical trial and continues to have routine scans every three months to monitor his progress, but he says he feels great.

Doelp’s story is just one of many that show how far cancer treatments have progressed, just like these 21 other cancer breakthroughs doctors want you to know. Doelp also credits a positive attitude to helping him make it through his arduous treatment journey. “If you’re willing to go the extra mile to eradicate this disease from your body, it is possible.”

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Jen Babakhan
Jen Babakhan is an author and credentialed educator living in California. She writes regularly about advice and culture for Reader's Digest. She is also the author of Detoured: The Messy, Grace-Filled Journey From Working Professional to Stay-at-Home Mom (Harvest House Publishers, 2019). She earned her BA in Communication Studies from California State University, Stanislaus. You can follow her on Instagram @JenBabakhan , Twitter @JenBabakhan, and Facebook @JenBabakhanauthor.