Wally Vogel

The Diagnosis

The first sign that something was wrong appeared while on vacation. I tried “cliff diving”, and after a jump came out of the water sputtering and with a pain in my rib cage. I assumed that I had broken a rib and just put up with the discomfort rather than seeking treatment. A few weeks later I had a sudden and intense pain – this time I went to the hospital and discovered my left kidney had actually ruptured. Subsequent scans showed the cause was a tumour… I had kidney cancer. What a shock – this was July of 2003, I was 41 years old and married with two young daughters and had always been in good health.

The Surgery

Without delay, my urologist scheduled surgery to remove my left kidney. He impressed the importance of getting it early and getting it all as I had the most aggressive type of kidney cancer and there were few if any treatment options if surgery didn’t work. The operation went well, and it appeared that the surgeon had indeed “gotten it all”. He said there was a small chance of recurrence, but the prognosis was very good. Therefore, I did not do too much research myself at this time – I felt like I had “dodged the bullet” and I returned to my normal life with a follow-up scheduled for 6 months later.

The Return

In January of 2004 I was looking forward to a new and hopefully better year. I fully expected my follow-up scan to be clear and was ready to put this whole cancer scare in the past. Unfortunately that was not to be. The scan showed that the cancer had returned, and that it was spreading quickly. A second surgery would be performed but the prognosis was very poor.

With few treatments available and an aggressive cancer loose in my body I had to face the possibility that I might not win the battle. I decided to first ensure that things were in place for my wife and daughters in case I was to die, and then focused 100% of my attention on surviving. It was especially difficult to speak with my daughters about this. They knew that Daddy was sick and that cancer was life-threatening, but since my outward appearance was still normal they were confident that I was going to be fine.

The Next Round

This time I researched my disease and treatment options intensely, and we pursued every possibility aggressively, with visits to specialists in both Canada and the USA second surgery was performed in March of 2004 to remove the tumours which had returned, but a follow-up scan 4 weeks later showed the cancer had already grown back again and had spread to the liver, spleen, and other areas. The best hope of survival remaining was a treatment called immunotherapy, which was a difficult and intense treatment with only a 5% success rate. At the time this treatment was not available in Canada and so I travelled to Milwaukee and did two rounds of treatment, spending a week in intensive care each time. The treatments were hard on me, but had little impact on the cancer which continued to grow and spread rapidly – with so many tumours that the radiologists stopped counting and the reports just said “numerous”. The immunotherapy had not worked and I was running out of time.

Out of Options

It was July of 2004 and there were no established treatment options left. There were some new drugs not yet approved that were having some success in slowing the growth of tumours, and I enrolled in a clinical trial on one of these drugs through the Cleveland Clinic. My hope was that if the drug worked for me I might survive until Christmas.

At this time we had to have the very difficult conversation with our daughters, and let them know that they may be losing their father soon. My older daughter Alexa was 13 at the time, and attending an all girl’s school that holds an annual “Father-Daughter” dance for the teen girls. Her first father-daughter dance was coming up the following February, which was 7 months away. She asked me if I would be able to take her to the dance, and I said I couldn’t promise but I would sure try. Then my younger daughter Courtney asked if I could take her to the father-daughter dance too. Courtney is 4 years younger than Alexa, and that meant her first father-daughter dance was almost 5 years in the future. I couldn’t see any way that we could stave off the disease that long. I just held Courtney and cried and said I would do my best.

New Drug… New Hope

My first cycle of the new clinical trial drug started in August of 2004, and a few weeks later a scan showed remarkable results. The tumours had begun to shrink and many had disappeared completely! My wife Jane and I were overjoyed, and almost afraid to believe the results, which were nothing short of miraculous. The results were confirmed, and the tumours continued to shrink with each subsequent cycle of the drug – almost like they were melting away (That drug is now known as Sutent, and is one of many drugs that are providing new hope for kidney cancer patients.) The following February I kept my promise to Alexa and we went to her first father-daughter dance together.

I remained on Sutent for almost two years and the tumour load had reduced by 85% and stabilized with a few tumours remaining. Since the tumours were in an operable location, I was once again a candidate for surgery. In the summer of 2006 I had surgery at Toronto GeneralHospital to remove my spleen and part of my pancreas where there were remnants of the cancer. After the surgery we found there was one tumour left in a back muscle, which we continued to monitor as I went off the drug due to complications after surgery. Six months later, there were no new tumours appearing, and an interventional radiologist at Toronto General agreed to try a process called RFA (for Radio Frequency Ablation) to effectively burn the last remaining tumour. That process was done in the spring of 2007 followed by my first clear scan!

New Lease on Life

Since the spring of 2007 I have been off all treatments, and have been enjoying life to the fullest. Regular scans are performed, and to date there has been no sign of recurring cancer. I recently was able to take my younger daughter Courtney to her first father-daughter dance… and I am grateful every day for the new lease on life that I have been given.

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