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Scot: On "Who Cares About Men's Health," we often bring up this thing called turning points. Those are those moments in your life that can change your paradigm about your health. And sometimes they're small little insignificant things that have big repercussions. They really change your opinion. Sometimes they're major events, and they also can have a big impact on how you think about your health and yourself.
Today, we're going to talk to Wal and the lessons he's learned from his experience with kidney cancer. This is another episode in the series of men talking to men about their health on "Who Cares About Men's Health," information, inspiration, and a different interpretation of men's health. My name is Scot Singpiel. I bring the BS, and the MD to counter my BS, Dr. Troy Madsen.
Troy: Hey, Scot. Great to be here, and I'm excited to talk to Wal.
Scot: And he's a "Who Cares About Men's Health" convert. Producer Mitch is on the show.
Mitch: Hey there. Happy to be here.
Scot: And sharing his story today is Wal Ozello. Wal, welcome to the program.
Wal: Thanks, guys, for having me. I love what you guys do here. I think, as guys, we talk so much about fixing things, right? We talk about fixing our sports teams. We talk about fixing cars, fixing our house. But we never talk about fixing ourselves, right? And so that's what I love about this podcast, is it allows us to talk about fixing ourselves, which is probably the most important thing to fix, right?
Scot: Right. And learn those lessons from each other. That was my first question, because I remember when I first met you, you were really jazzed on the mission of this podcast, which was just men talking about health issues. I was going to ask you why, and you just brilliantly explained why right there.
Wal: Yeah. Listen, we don't talk as guys. We don't communicate to each other. We hold everything in. We don't tell our wives about our problems because we don't want to burden them. We don't tell our kids. And we just don't talk to each other. It's important to get this stuff out and realize that other guys are going through the same exact stuff we are and we could all help each other and relate.
Scot: Yeah. And that's why you're on the show today because you went through a major health issue. I think we can learn from that without, hopefully, needing to go through it ourselves. It seems like sometimes us guys, it takes a big slap across the face to make simple realizations, doesn't it?
Wal: Oh my God, yeah.
Scot: Yeah. And you had a pretty major one. Would you say your experience fundamentally changed how you think about your health, or your life, or anything?
Wal: In a weird kind of way, no. I've always been concerned about my health. I've always been going to the doctor when I should. About two years ago, I come home from a friend's house and I go to the bathroom before the end of the night and blood comes out. Pure blood. Pure. And not tainted. We're talking pure red blood. And it scared me because your whole life, as a guy, you're looking down in the toilet when you go and it's either a little yellow, or a little amber, or clear, and this is pure red blood, right?
Scot: And no doubt. It wasn't like you drank your kid's red Kool-Aid, or you had some beets for dinner. This is blood.
Wal: Yeah, this was pure blood. So I did the very non-guy thing, and I sought out care immediately because I knew this was something serious. I knew this was more than just a passing thing, right?
Mitch: What was your first sign?
Troy: And you weren't having any pain with that? It was just straight-up blood.
Wal: Exactly. No pain whatsoever. I had a guess it wasn't kidney stones, and I knew it was something serious. So I got some testing done with my PCP and got a CAT scan done and . . . Yeah.
Scot: Okay. Hold up. You went to your PCP. You didn't go to the emergency room immediately?
Wal: No, again because I knew I could get ahold of my PCP quick and I knew it wasn't pain involved.
Scot: All right. I don't know about you, Mitch, but if I'm peeing blood, I think . . .
Mitch: Oh, yeah.
Troy:Yeah, I would be scared.
Scot: If there are a few reasons to go emergency room, I think I would go to the emergency room for that. So, Troy, is it okay if you can get in with your PCP quickly if you're peeing blood? Is that all right, or should you go to the emergency room?
Troy: It's a tough question and I always put myself in the position of when my family members call me, because when they call me, they always want me to say, "Oh, you don't need to go to the ER." If Wal had called me and said, "I'm peeing bright red blood," I would have probably said, "Okay. How soon can you see your PCP? And do you think you could get a CT scan done here within the next day or two?" And if he had said yes, I would say that's great.
Scot: So even in the next day or two? To me, that sounds like an immediate thing.
Troy: If he were lightheaded, if he felt like he was going to pass out, if he was having bleeding anywhere else, like from his gums, coughing up blood, blood in his stool, things like that, I would say you need to go to the ER right now.
In his case, I'm thinking this sounds like kidney cancer. I don't think it's a kidney stone because there's just no pain, but I think you need a timely CT scan. Maybe not immediately, but it really should happen hopefully within the next couple of days.
For the average person, that may not be practical. You may not get in to see your PCP. And quite honestly, for the average person, if you reached out to your PCP and you said, "I'm peeing bright red blood," they would say, "Go to the ER." So they would probably be sending you there. It sounds like in Wal's case he was able to get all that stuff done pretty quickly, which is great.
Scot: All right.
Wal: Yeah, I was in for testing immediately. I was in for urine analysis the very next day and the urine analysis didn't show anything. So next step was getting a CT scan.
Troy: Let me ask. I'm guessing it showed blood. It just didn't show infection.
Wal: No. That's the really weird thing.
Wal: It didn't show any blood in the urine after that.
Troy: Oh, wow. So it was just kind of off and on.
Wal: It was very much off and on.
Wal: And so I'd go for days, and it would be clear, nothing, and then shooting pure blood. And at one point, I started passing blood clots as well.
Scot: Oh, my gosh. We needed to put a warning at the beginning of this. Why didn't we?
Wal: So if you've never felt that, it feels like small pieces of Jell-O going through you.
Mitch: Well, I'm glad you went to the doctor, though, because that's just it. If the next part of the story was, "It didn't hurt, so I kept going . . ."
Troy:"It didn't hurt. I figured it would clear up eventually."
Wal: No, I went to the doctor. I got a CT scan. And I remember walking out of the CT scan joking to the technician and going, "Both my kidneys are there, right?" And she gets a little apprehensive, and she's like, "Well, they're going to call you with the results." I'm like, "Oh, my goodness. That's not good."
And so my PCP calls me with the test results. I just happened to be working from home that day, and I'm like, "Hey, do I need to get my wife on this call?" He's like, "Yes." And so I put my wife on speakerphone, and he told me I had a tumor, 7 centimeters by 7 centimeters by 5 centimeters in my left kidney. So think about the size of a Crayola crayon. That's 7 centimeters.
Troy: The length, yeah. That's a big tumor, yeah.
Wal: Dr. Troy, you can probably confirm this. It was basically the size of my kidney.
Troy: Oh, yeah. For sure.
Wal: And my kidney, when they removed it, was two pounds. It was a full two pounds.
Scot: What do they normally weigh?
Wal: What is it? Like a pound, right?
Troy: I've never weighed a kidney, so I don't have a good answer.
Mitch: It's not a difficult . . .
Troy: I usually try to keep organs in people, but . . .
Mitch: Good call.
Troy: Yeah, just the size of that kidney . . . Having seen some kidney tumors over the course of my career, particularly with ultrasounds, that's a big tumor.
Scot: All right. Hey, Troy, I want to interrupt Wal here for a second. So why, when you have a kidney tumor, are you peeing blood off and on? What's going on there?
Troy: Well, it gets to the point . . . So you've got the kidney and then you've got the area that kind of filters everything out of the blood, and then it goes into the collecting system and the urine. So basically, you don't really know you have that tumor until it gets big enough where it's invading the blood vessels and working its way down into where the urine collects. So, oftentimes, the first sign of kidney cancer is blood in your urine.
And so Wal probably had that kidney for quite a while. I don't know how long. Months, for sure. Just getting larger and larger. And quite honestly, it's just lucky it got big enough and it went the right direction where it was showing signs of blood in the urine. Some people don't have that sign, and they don't know until it's metastasized. So, essentially, that's what happens though.
And it doesn't hurt. That's why he didn't have pain. It's not pushing on nerves, not doing anything else, so it's not causing pain in the kidney. But generally, kidney cancer, the first sign is blood in the urine.
Scot: And Wal, you get the news, your wife's there with you, you're told that you have a kidney tumor. At that point, what was going through your mind? How did you react?
Wal: So, with me, it's always, "What's next?" At this point, I already had an appointment set up with a urologist. And I was actually seeing the urologist, I think, the following . . . I got the news on a Friday. I think I saw the urologist on Tuesday. So, with me, it's always, "What next? What do we got to do?"
Scot: You're a big "let's solve this problem."
Wal: Let's solve it, right?
Scot: That makes you feel better, is take some steps.
Wal: Listen, hindsight is always 20/20, right? And probably at the time, I was freaking out.
Scot: But the story today is . . .
Wal: Yeah. So we go in for that appointment on Tuesday. My wife went with me and we went over the CT scan. Normally with a kidney cancer like this, they just remove the organ and there's no chemo, there's no radiation associated with it.
But the urologist wanted to check out other things. She wanted to make sure that there was no sign in the bladder or anywhere else in the urinary system. So she's like, "We've got to get you a cystoscopy." I can't even pronounce it.
Mitch: Oh, I've had a few of those.
Scot: So that's a word that only the people that have gotten it know.
Troy: That's right.
Wal: So you know what a colonoscopy is. You know what an endoscopy is. What's left?
Scot: So what does cysto mean, Troy?
Troy: Well, cysto means bladder. But to get to the bladder, you've got to find an entry point. There's only one way in.
Wal: And they numb you, but they don't warn you that it burns after, right? And it was strange. The first woman to touch me down there in over 20, 25 years who isn't my wife is my doctor, right? A female doctor, no less. So it was weird. And there was a scope and a monitor. I could watch the whole thing.
And the good news . . . You always thought, "Well, at least there's good news," right? And the good news was is there was no evidence of disease inside the bladder or anywhere else in the urinary system. So it really was, "Let's remove the organ and then go from there."
Scot: So I understand you did a bunch of research. Tell us what kind of research you were doing, what you were trying to figure out. Was it before your first doctor visit? After? And then some of the lessons you learned during that process of trying to learn more about your condition.
Wal: I mean, Google is so powerful out there, right? You can hop on Google and Google anything. If you Google "kidney cancer," you get all these results. And early on, before I had gotten the results from the CT scan, I was a betting man and banking it was on kidney cancer.
Like Dr. Troy said, there was no pain. There's zero pain, and so I was guessing it was not kidney stones. And you look on the internet, "Here's what blood in your urine could be," and you scroll down after kidney stones and it's, "Oh, it could be kidney cancer." And so I was banking on the fact that I had kidney cancer.
After I got it, after I was diagnosed, a good friend of mine recommended, "Hey, have a good source of truth. There are a million websites on there that can talk to you about kidney cancer. Have a good source of truth."
So I kept on going to the American Cancer Society and looking at their website and reading all about diagnosis, treatment, care after surgery, and all that, to really discover what I should do in prep for surgery and what I should expect afterwards. But I stayed off of all those other websites, and blogs, and all that other stuff because I just wanted to have a good source of truth.
Scot: And you didn't want to terrify yourself. I mean, blood in urine is scary enough, right? You Google "I'm a bit tired" and terrifying results come back.
Troy: Oh, yeah. It's like brain tumor is number one. It's like, "I'm tired." "You have a brain tumor."
Scot: I think that's a great lesson right there. We talk on this podcast a lot about the importance of getting that good information and just making sure you've got a good source. And you went to American Cancer Society, which I would imagine is pretty super solid. So good piece of advice there.
So question here. Wal, before you got your kidney tumor, how was your health up until that point? How would you describe it? Were you a fairly healthy guy?
Wal: I would describe my health as not spectacular, but pretty darn close. I'm not overweight. I was never a heavy smoker. I hadn't smoked in over three decades. Didn't drink a lot of alcohol. Drank a lot of water, ate healthy. The house here is gluten-free because the house has . . . my kids and wife have celiac disease. So I ate a very healthy diet. And so I would say my health was four and a half stars out of five.
Scot: Yeah. Did it feel like a little bit of a slap in the face then when you're diagnosed with an illness like this, or . . .
Wal: A kick in the chest, man. I went through this exercise, and I'm sure everybody who gets some type of disease like this is, "How did I get it? How did I get kidney cancer? Of all the . . ." Lung cancer, I could go, "Oh, well, I smoked a little bit 30 years ago. I smoked some cigars." Liver, "Oh, I did drink. I didn't drink a lot, but . . ." But kidney cancer, how? And that's one of the things I Googled, right? "How did I get kidney cancer?" And they're like, "Who knows?"
Scot: Was that what you came up with? Who knows? Or is it hereditary? Maybe Troy could even jump in at this point and explain kidney cancer. That is a great question. How do you get that?
Troy: That's a great question. Yeah, there's a genetic component to it. I will say that smoking is a risk factor for kidney cancer. You hadn't smoked in 30 years. I can't say if it had anything to do with your cancer, but it is a risk factor. Beyond that, who knows?
And I have to qualify that by saying I'm not a urologist, I'm not an expert on kidney cancer, but certainly a genetic component. There is a component with smoking as well that I'm aware of.
Scot: Okay. Is that what you learned, too, Wal?
Wal: And I did get genetic testing and discovered that there was no evidence of the genetic.
Troy: There was nothing there? Yeah.
Wal: Nothing there.
Scot: Just luck of the draw, huh? I guess also, Troy, it's like we don't know what we don't know, right? There could be risk factors. We just don't know what they are.
Troy: Yeah, exactly. Who knows? And I think most cancers, we have no idea why people got them. There are no identifiable risk factors. There are no clear genetic markers for those cancers. So I think, in so many cases, you get cancer and you don't know why.
And the reality is, over the course of our lifetimes, half of us are going to get cancer. That's just a simple fact of growing old and the fact that we don't die of heart attacks now. We get older than people did 40, 50 years ago. Eventually, half of us are going to get cancer.
Scot: So as difficult as it was hearing the news and going through that process, I understand that the recovery from the kidney surgery was pretty brutal.
Wal: Oh, my goodness.
Scot: And you learned some lessons about life and just kind of being a person. Talk about that a little bit.
Wal: Yeah. So I'd say first the physical things. Probably the most difficult couple days of my life were several days post-surgery. I was having a tough time having my bladder relax, and I was having a tough time having my bowels move. I was clogged up both ways for a couple of days and just couldn't get anything working again.
And I finally had reached out to some of the physicians and got some drugs to kind of help with that and eventually things started working again. But I'd say physically, that was probably the most difficult couple days of my life.
And then it's the mental health things. Going from four and a half stars physically to two was emasculating. It was really emasculating.
I had to hire somebody to do some electrical work in my house. I knew what was wrong. I knew how to fix it. I just couldn't physically do it.
And I had to hire somebody to cut my grass after my son went away to college. I can cut my grass. I know how to cut my own grass. I couldn't help around the house. I couldn't help my wife do things. I couldn't cook. I couldn't clean. It was just a kick in the chest, emasculating, to have to go, "No, I need to take it slow. I can't run places. I can't walk fast."
My first job out of college, I was living in New York and I learned to walk like a New Yorker. I can't do that anymore, right? Can't do that at all. And it was tough to kind of come to terms with, "This is who I am now, and that's okay." And there are still days where I wake up and go, "I'm alive today, and that's a good thing. And so let's start at that basis point, that I'm alive today. Let's start there."
Scot: Yeah. I hear you tell that story, and it's just really easy for me to go, "Come on, man. You just had your kidney removed. So what you can't mow your lawn?" But I don't want to discount how that impacted you. Why do you think that impacted you in that way? I don't know that I would feel emasculated because of that. I'd be like, "Wow, I'm still alive. Give me a week or two."
Wal: Yeah. It's a couple of things. At first, they said six to eight weeks. Your recovery six to eight weeks, right? And so you think, "Oh, in eight weeks, flip a switch. I'm fine." No, that's really not it. The wound was healed up in six weeks.
But I didn't come back to work full time. I was working half-time and I just thought, "I'm Wal Ozello. I can bounce back from this and I could take the bull by the horns again and be fine." Because that's what guys do, right? We cut our own grass. We do these things, and now I couldn't.
Scot: Are you able to give yourself a little bit more grace nowadays?
Wal: Yeah. And that's what it is, is giving myself grace and going, "It's okay. It's okay if only the back lawn gets cut today and the front lawn gets cut tomorrow. It's okay if something goes around the household not fixed. It's okay if I'm 80% today. It's okay if I spend the evening on the couch because that's all I can do."
Scot: Yeah. And you don't associate with that as being less of a person anymore, I hope?
Wal: No. But it was so easy to right after the surgery for a while. After the surgery, I also got immunotherapy. So I struggled from about . . . I had the surgery first week of December and I probably struggled physically through at least June, July of the following year, just because of all the other treatments and stuff I was getting. But yeah, eventually I had to give myself grace.
Scot: Did you come to that on your own, or did you have to get some professional mental help?
Wal: I got some help through . . . I went to the Cancer Center, the James at The Ohio State University. I've got to put that "the" in, right? And I'm sure a lot of large cancer centers have this where they have kind of broad services. They set me up with some counseling to get as well. And it helped.
But I'm also very critical of myself and put a lot on my own shoulders. And it was a constant reminder to myself that I had to give myself grace.
Troy: I think one thing you said that really hit home to me is so many days you would just wake up and be like, "Hey, I'm just grateful to be alive today." It sounds like in a lot of ways it kind of refocused. Number one, you had to kind of take a step back, lower your expectations in terms of what you were expecting of yourself, but also really got you focused on just the basics that you were grateful for.
Mitch: Yeah. Having been someone who has also had to go through a bunch of surgeries with my urinary system, etc., that takes a long time to heal. I can't imagine that long. I mean, the longest I've had to be down was three weeks, and that was just . . . I couldn't do things. I had to have people come and help me in things, and that was really, really tough. I can't even imagine if it was that much longer.
Wal: Yeah. It was a struggle.
Scot: So, Wal, I understand that it's been two years since . . . Was it two years since the first symptoms or since the surgery?
Wal: About two years since the first symptoms, yeah.
Scot: Yeah. And I understand that you've been told you're in remission, but you still get tested, and it could still come back. Is that the case?
Wal: Yeah. So this was probably the scary moment. Like I said earlier, I was always focused on, "What's next? What's next? How do we take care of this? How do we get this done?" And so the symptoms came. They said, "Okay. We've got to remove the kidney." All right. Cool. We removed the kidney. What's next? "Okay. We've got to let you heal." Okay. Cool. What's next? "Okay. We're going to do a CT scan to check to make sure everything is okay." Good. All right. What are we going to do next? "We're going to do immunotherapy." All right. Cool.
The immunotherapy fried my thyroid and then started attacking my liver, and so they're like, "Okay. We're going to stop the immunotherapy." And then they said, "Now we're done with the immunotherapy. What we're going to do now is surveillance." Oh, surveillance. What's surveillance?
Mitch:That's a scary word.
Scot:I would imagine at this point you were you're thinking, "We're going to reach an end here. We're going to reach a finish line. We're done. Hey, congratulations." But no.
Wal: Exactly. Where's the bell? Where's the bell I get to ring now? And so they're like, "We're going to do surveillance. We're going to check every six months to do the CT scan to see if it comes back." And I'm like, "Wait, what? If it comes back?" And they're like, "Yeah. And if it comes back, it's probably going to be in the next two years or so. So we're going to do surveillance for the next two years."
And that was the mental kick in the chest, right? I started with all this rumination of, "Oh, my God. What if it comes back? What if it comes back? What if it comes back?" The six-month period comes around with the CT scans, and what if it comes back?
And so I'm in this dark place and ruminating like this, and one day out of the blue, it hits me. If it does come back, what would I do? I'd try to live my life to the fullest, and try to suck every last moment of life, and all the blood out of the proverbial turnip that I can, right? And I'm like, "Well, why don't I just do that now?"
Scot: Yeah, instead of waiting for the news that . . .
Wal: Waiting for the news. Why don't I just live my life that way now? And if it comes back or not, big deal, but at least I'm trying to live my life to the fullest as much as I can now. That's what I try to do. Some days, it's easy, and some days, it's hard. But I try to enjoy life now as much as I can rather than ruminate whether or not it's going to go away.
Scot: And what does that look like? What is Wal not enjoying life versus Wal deciding he's going to enjoy life to the fullest look like?
Wal: That looks like me talking to my friends more often. That looks like me going for walks. That looks like me hanging out with my wife and holding her hand on the couch. That looks like me going to the coffee shop every morning and enjoying coffee with my coffee shop buddies. That's what it looks like.
That looks like going ahead and eating the unhealthy stuff sometimes. It makes you want to enjoy it, right? That looks like splurging and going to that rock concert you want to go to rather than just sitting in bed curled in a ball going, "What if it comes back?" That's what it looks like.
Troy: We've talked to a few people who have gone through not kidney cancer but similar experiences, whether it's cancer, heart attacks, things like that. And I think oftentimes we sort of live with this sense of dread of, "Well, when is that going to happen to me? If or when? And how will I react?" Number one, you've been through that, but then you always have that out there. What if it comes back? But just the way that you said, "I live my life now like I would live my life if I got that news."
Hopefully, we can all kind of do that same thing where it's not so much, "Well, what would I do if it happened?" but, "Well, I'm doing it now. I'm living my life to the fullest. I'm appreciating the people I'm with. And that's what I would do if that happened to me and if I got that news."
So I think that's a really powerful lesson and something personally I hope I can do more of.
Mitch: Yeah. And I guess for me, too, that kind of outlook . . . On the flip side, I guess because I'm a little bit younger and so on, it seems like there's always more time to get healthier, right? There's always a future. There's always, "Eh, I'll start enjoying things or getting things figured out about my health later."
Not just enjoying yourself, but also realizing and appreciating what I have now, because there might come a day where something happens and I'm not four out of five stars, or three stars in my case. I'm not at that three-star mark, right? So what can we do to start living? I like that a lot.
Scot: I think my takeaway is that if I ever pee blood, I'm going to show my wife and I'm going to say, "I'll take care of it tomorrow," because I've learned, apparently, you can do that. No, I'm joking.
The thing I'm afraid of with that philosophy, and I don't know how . . . I feel like I could do that for a little bit, but then I feel like I kind of would regress back into my old self. Wal, how have you prevented that from happening?
Wal: I keep on telling myself that. Every time the dark voice starts throwing up in my head, I silence it and I tell them, "Shut up."
And here's the other thing, too. In a weird kind of way, I use surviving kidney cancer and surviving this episode as a way to conquer the world. If something else bad happens in my life, I'm like, "I survived kidney cancer. I can take on anything else in the world." It's almost like it's a weird chip on my shoulder that I've got now. If I can survive that, I can do anything.
Troy: That's interesting. Yeah, something that was initially so emasculating then becomes very empowering. Yeah, you went through that, you came out okay, so everything else kind of pales in comparison.
Scot: Wal, I think your story is going to help guys, whether they're going through something similar to what you went through. We can take away those lessons without hopefully needing to go through what you . . . You kind of sacrificed yourself, if you will. So hopefully we can learn some lessons that we don't have to learn the hard way by going through a major health crisis like that.
I want to give you an opportunity to . . . Do you have a piece of advice? Do you have a final thought, something for a listener that's made it this far through the podcast that you'd like to leave somebody with?
Wal: Yeah, I'd like to leave you with seek help. Don't do this guy thing where, "Oh, I peed blood. I'm fine. I don't need to go see a doctor. I hurt my back. I don't need to see a doctor. I did this." No, don't do that guy thing where, "It's all going to be okay and I don't need to go see a doctor about it." Go seek help.
If you're struggling with something mentally, talk to your guy friends. There's nothing wrong with telling one of your guy friends, "Hey, I'm struggling with this." And get help. Don't be that dude that isolates yourself from everything else. Get some help.
Scot: Yep. Get the help and then also be willing to take help, like you had to learn the hard way during the recovery.
Wal: Yeah. Oh, my God.
Scot: It's asking for help. That can be hard as well.
Wal: Yeah. Ask for help and receive help.
Scot: Wal, thank you very much for being on the program. If you have had a similar experience and you'd like to share it with us here on the "Who Cares About Men's Health" podcast or have any comments about today's episode or Wal's story, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com.
Wal, we wish you continued health. Every six months, we're going to be thinking about you. Thanks for listening, and thanks for caring about men's health.
Wal: Thank you. Thank you, guys. You guys take care.
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