RMC Patient Profile: Lamar Valentina Part 2

Read the first part of Lamar’s RMC journey here…

Part of Lamar’s cancer treatment occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. He had to quarantine to keep himself safe, and it was scary to him at times. “But now that COVID-19 has subsided a little bit. It’s still around, I recommend doing some things that you enjoy. Don’t let cancer take away the joy that you still have. If you’re someone who’s active, maybe you just need to scale back on how active you are. Of course, you want to be safe. If you’re someone who likes to travel, find ways that you can still do it safely.”

Lamar found some activities that were helpful for him physically and mentally. “What helped me was being more involved in nature. I would do walks. I would sit outside and watch the clouds. I’d watch the stars at night. And I try to still continue to play basketball with my son. Obviously, he’s starting to get a little better than me. He’s getting bigger and faster, and I’m a little weaker. But I try to still do things that are fun and enjoyable.”

During part of COVID-19 restrictions, Lamar started missing the ability to do things, being self-sufficient, and even getting back into work. People asked why he was in such a rush to get back to work, but work helped him feel a sense of purpose. He felt like he had become a burden to his loved ones who had to cared for him. Lamar recommends striking a balance between accepting help and doing some things yourself. “Let others who want to help you actually help you. If you feel up to doing other things on your own, don’t shy away from that. Don’t let cancer take away a little bit of independence or a little bit of your purpose that you feel. I enjoy doing these PEN interviews, because I think we need that voice, and people shouldn’t shy away. Obviously, I’m not saying go out and be reckless. Be safe but try to do the things that bring you joy.”

People often tell Lamar that he looks so healthy and that he doesn’t look sick, which can be frustrating, since he wakes up with pains and has tumors all over. His biggest takeaway from this journey is how resilient he is. Lots of people tell him that he makes cancer look easy but don’t realize that it’s very difficult. “I just feel like life is short as it is. We all have an expiration date, and we don’t know when it’s going to come. And that’s the only thing guaranteed in life. For me, I really just feel like I want to live each day as if I’m trying to make a mark, at least be as happy as possible, chasing my goals and my dreams. I try to make sure with every encounter that I have with people that I’m not angry or bitter. I don’t want that to rub off on them, so I try to make sure that I greet everyone with a smile.”

If people don’t know specifically from his appearance since his eyebrows and hair are gone or know from someone else, Lamar prefers others to not know what he’s going through. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. Just treat me like a normal person, and hopefully I can pass on some positive energy and some happiness to everybody else regardless of what they’re going through to make it a kinder place here on earth.”

Lamar feels blessed about his overall quality of life. He’s at work and still travels for work as a flight chief in the Air Force. I’m not as physically active as I’d like to be. He’s doing chemo every three weeks, and will be starting radiation soon for a spot that’s remaining. The ultimate goal is to achieve no evidence of disease. He’s been in outpatient care for his entire treatment process and has been able to go to the hospital for chemo and then returns home and to work. “It’s been an absolute blessing that I cannot take for granted. But I still go through ups and downs. I have slight pains here and there. I’d love to be able to work out three to four days a week. But I’d rather take it easy and focus on my body healing from the inside out, and I’ll get back to working out more sooner or later.”

His biggest advice to renal medullary carcinoma (RMC) patients and cancer patients is don’t give up hope. “A lot of this fight is mental. Your body follows physically what you think mentally. So speak positive affirmations. Every day when you wake up even on the tough days, speak healing into your body. What you’re eating, whatever you’re drinking, it’s going to provide healing and substance. It’s going to rid your body of cancer. No matter how dark it looks or how dark it gets at any point, do not give up hope. Do not lose your spirit. Make sure you’re smiling and laughing and doing the things you love with the people you love.”  

Lamar looks forward to ongoing research of RMC. “This has been a huge purpose added to my life. Anything I can do while I’m here, I’ll do it. I’m a big advocate for more support and more research for RMC. I know each day we’re getting closer to a cure, and hopefully this won’t impact families as negatively as it has in the past.”

What’s Lamar’s parting advice to other patients? “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person that walked into it, that’s what the storm is all about. When you can’t control what’s happening to you, control how you respond to it, that’s where your power is.”

RMC Patient Profile: Lamar Valentina Part 1

When Lamar Valentina shares his renal medullary carcinoma (RMC) patient journey, you can tell that he loves serving and helping others in his work and free time even as a cancer patient. As an active duty Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, Lamar has continued to work throughout his cancer treatment. When a lump on the side of his neck combined with extreme abdominal pain and flank pain concerned him, Lamar decided to have his symptoms checked out at the hospital. His RMC diagnosis came shortly before he turned 35, and his chemotherapy started about two weeks after his diagnosis.

Lamar is fortunate to have some friends who work in cancer centers, and they were connected with experts at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which is in Boston where his son also lives. The COVID-19 pandemic created a delay for some of his chemo, but it ended up as a benefit to give his body a break. Lamar recalls feeling some measure of relief about his tumor scans, “…we saw that there was a little bit of growth, it wasn’t alarming growth, but there was some growth, but it still hadn’t gone to where it was when I first was diagnosed, so that was the good thing that it wasn’t as aggressive as it’s known to be.”

After the things he’s gone through during his cancer journey, Lamar feels he has much to share to help other patients with what they’re going through. For newly diagnosed patients, he recommends that patients take advantage of resources and oncology therapists that most cancer centers provide. “Take the time to process the news of your diagnosis. I was sort of like a deer in headlights. Everything went blank, and I felt like I was in a nightmare of a dream, trying to wake up. So process your diagnosis and go through the emotions. You’re going to feel sad. You’re going to be depressed. You’re going to be angry. You’re going to be curious as to why you. But once you process those emotions, make sure you don’t compartmentalize those emotions and you express them to somebody whether it’s a friend, a caregiver.” 

Early after his diagnosis, Lamar decided to go full-on vegan and lost a lot of weight. “It was very frightening, because losing weight made my body become a lot more frail and weak. So I started to eat fish and chicken. His advice to other patients, “I think specific things like that definitely talk it over with your primary doctor, your medical team to make sure you’re doing what’s best for yourself and that you’re not going to hinder your treatment.”

Lamar feels fortunate to have connected with the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) RMC Empowerment Lead Cora Connor through a Google search and found R.M.C., Inc. He also feels that the RMC community is a very tight-knit community, “I really like to pay homage to those we have lost. One of the first friends I met was Chad Alexander, Ava Cummings, Kai Penn, Da’Corey Kimbrough, Seth Calhoun, Caleb Wheeler, Feninna Vasilou, and there are so many other people I’ve met…they’ve since passed away. These are a few of the RMC warriors we have lost. I continue to fight for them and to everyone still battling RMC, I wish nothing but clear scans as we fight on the front lines together! Finding people who are going through this whether RMC or another form of cancer, I think you can relate more to cancer patients, because they understand what you’re going through.” 

Lamar advises patients to empower themselves. “You want to be able to at least know what questions to ask. And it starts with educating yourself. So I think you want to be able to go into those appointments and know what questions to ask, know if you get a certain answer to that question to know what a good follow-up question would be.” Early on in his care, he would record his conversations with his doctor to ensure he got all the information. Lamar also advises writing down questions before you go to your appointments to make sure you don’t forget about them. 

According to Lamar, being involved and learning about trial treatments are vital ways for patients to take part in their own care. “A lot of people have asked me about my treatment plan, but we’re all different. Our bodies are different. The way we can handle certain treatments are very different. So I try not to compare my care and the chemotherapy to what other people had. Because if you go based off that, you may turn down a treatment that may possibly work better for you with your genetics, and it may not have worked well for someone else, and you deny that based off their reaction to that treatment when it could be really helpful for you.”

Read the second part of Lamar’s RMC journey here…

Making Renal Medullary Carcinoma (RMC) Invisible No More

Kidney cancer changed my life forever when my brother Herman, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form called renal medullary carcinoma (RMC) in April 2012. Months leading up to his diagnosis he was experiencing bad back pain and it wasn’t until he found blood in his urine that he knew something wasn’t right and went to the emergency department. That’s where they did an x-ray and told him he had a mass that was consistent with kidney cancer but he needed to follow up with a urologist to get a definitive diagnosis. Herman had begun searching the internet and found Dr. Nizar Tannir who told him chemo was the first step. Herman’s local oncologist told him that chemo was not an option. In fact, I’ll never forget the day our local oncologist looked at him and my mom telling him there was nothing they could do for him. It felt like my soul left my body. I couldn’t think and just broke down and cried. I refused to believe my brother was going to die. The very next morning we drove 17 hours to Houston, Texas and that’s when our fight began; traveling back and forth to Texas every two weeks for my brother’s treatment and doctor’s appointments. Some days he was very sick and not up to the 2 hour and 30-minute flight, but we have to say it was all worth it because today he is a survivor. Not only is he a survivor, but he has remained cancer free for almost seven years! We believe God intervened and placed us exactly where we were meant to be from the start and worked through the doctor’s there because when you read the statistics, he shouldn’t be here but as I’ve learned, despite your diagnosis, there is always hope beyond what you see.

To have a center of excellence like MD Anderson accept Herman in such a desperate time of need was a blessing. And while Herman’s story brings hope to those diagnosed with RMC, the statistics are still sobering. This is why I established RMC Support, a foundation dedicated to renal medullary carcinoma in 2013. Early detection is critical and can play an important role in the outcome of patient survival. I never imagined I would have been in contact with so many people from all over the world. I remember the feeling of hopelessness and I didn’t want anyone to experience what we did, which is why I created a social media platform where others can get connected and know that they are not alone in this fight.  

Through this community we launched a petition in 2016 gaining over 6,800 signatures asking the President to help ensure that individuals who carry sickle cell trait will be screened. We also created a registry for doctors to analyze information about people with renal medullary carcinoma. The goal is to gather info that can be used to estimate the number of cases of RMC each year, estimate the number of people with RMC at a specific point in time, better understand who gets RMC and what factors affect the disease, examine the connection between RMC and those who carry the sickle cell trait and improve RMC treatment. One of our greatest strides thus far was helping enact a bill in the State of South Carolina, which ensures parents of newborns born with sickle cell disease or trait receive educational information on sickle cell disease and trait associated complications.  

ARMC Network Manager at the Patient Empowerment Network, I have also helped launch the RMC Invisible No More Campaign. Raising awareness never stops. We hope to encourage those who are unknowledgeable about RMC to become knowledgeable and see how it is hurting certain communities. Through this campaign, we’d like to reach those who are living with probable sickle cell disease and/or trait, but are unaware of their status. Knowing your status is knowing your risk. Pattern.org is also highlighted throughout this campaign which is a big driver in rare cancer research. Pattern allows cancer patients to send in tumor tissue samples to be studied.  

One of the most significant things my brother’s cancer journey has brought me to has been meeting so many incredible people from all different walks of life. I feel incredibly blessed to be able to provide some source of hope and encouragement to patients, their families and loved ones. Herman is an inspiration to many, and I believe God has used him as a vessel to show other’s there is hope!  

No matter how rare a disease may be when we come together, we can make our voices heard. Never forget, you are your biggest advocate and all things are possible! 

Armia’s Story

Armia’s Story | Renal Medullary Carcinoma from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Renal medullary carcinoma (RMC) patient Armia Austin was diagnosed at age 21. Watch as she shares details about her diagnosis and treatment journey, advice to others for sickle cell trait testing, and hopes and goals for the future.

Transcript:

Armia Austin:

I was diagnosed with RMC back in May of 2020. I was 21 years old when I was diagnosed and I was at college when I started getting symptoms. The timing couldn’t have been better because I had symptoms and then it was spring break and then the pandemic hit. So, I was able to come home, be with my family, and be able to attend all these doctors’ visits, ’cause I had to get CT scans, MRI all that kind of stuff. So, the timing was good because I was able to come home from college and get the testing that I needed to see exactly what was going on. Finding a doctor was very simple, because I went through my primary care doctor, and then I was referred to a doctor for my urinary tract, so I saw someone to get a CT scan on my bladder and all that stuff, and then they saw a tumor on my right kidney, so they didn’t know what it was, and they didn’t care if it was cancerous or not, I’d see a neurologist for that, so they didn’t care if it was cancerous or not, they just wanted me to remove the kidney all together as soon as possible because of the size of my tumor. So, in May, I got the kidney removed, my right kidney removed, and then I followed up with the doctor who removed my kidney, my urologist, and they noticed that it was called renal medullary carcinoma, that was the type of tumor it was, and they followed up with an oncologist that I was able to meet with immediately because they wanted me to be watched regardless if it has spread or not.

So, my treatment path was, it was a pretty easy transition because I was able to have a urologist set up right away. So it was actually, I’d say after three months of not having or, of getting my right kidney removed, I was set up for a CT scan three months, fast forward three months from the surgery, but I started getting symptoms probably three weeks after my kidney surgery. I had a very rough chest pain, it was very heavy on my chest, I had issues breathing, so I… fast forward, I got another CT scan and there was fluid, they were fluid all over my chest in the CT, it filled my entire right lung, so it went from my right kidney all the way up to my right lung and it filled the entire lung, so I was breathing off of one lung at the time, and I would have anxiety attacks, panic attacks, everything because it was so hard to breathe on its own, so it would freak me out, but then I was able to get tapped in my back, so they would numb my back and then drain the fluid so it would release the tension in my lung area, but then I was able to get on chemotherapy by August, I had an event where my friends came over and they all shaved their heads for me, so that was really nice.

So talking to friends and family was definitely a huge benefit for me because people were always praying, leaving me messages, checking in on me, making sure I was okay, and when you are a cancer patient, it’s really hard to understand or wrap your head around the fact that you actually are

sick in a sense of like it’s very different from anything, any kind of sickness you have encountered before, so it was hard, but definitely talking to friends and family made the difference. My advice to others is definitely get tested for the sickle cell trait as soon as possible. I think that is the most important thing because that’s where it all starts. So even if you have the sickle cell trait, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be prone to this cancer, but it’s definitely good to get the test so that if it were to come up in the future, you would know how to handle it sooner.

So, my hope for the future, I’ve been on chemo for about six months now, and it’s been going very well for me. I’m still a college student, I never took time off from classes, so I never took not even a summer off when I was diagnosed, I was still in summer classes, finished fall semester, and now I’m in Spring, so I will be scheduled to graduate this May, May of 21, and then eventually I plan to go to medical school and become a doctor myself. Because I love the idea of helping other people who are unable to help themselves, and I feel like if we have more leaders in the healthcare field who can relate to a perspective, then we’ll have a lot more better doctors in the world because of the relationship and the perspective of being on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Never take life for granted because you never know what will come out of it. And I can say that from my experience, cancer isn’t what I planned for myself. I never thought I would be diagnosed at 21 years old, but it really shaped me as an individual as far as how important and how crucial life is, and how important is to stay on top of your health and you know just life is very important and whoever is going through something, just be grateful that you have the chance to get the help you need and that it’s not too late to get help from any type of medical professional because everyone’s life is important, everyone’s life is crucial.

And renal medullary carcinoma should not go unnoticed because it’s a crazy and it’s a crazy cancer, but with more research and more help and people who are more informed because of the cancer, I feel like we’ll be able to stop a lot of cases in the future.

Lamar’s Story

Lamar’s Story | Renal Medullary Carcinoma from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Renal medullary carcinoma patient and active-duty U.S. Air Force member Lamar Valentina shares important pieces of his RMC journey. Watch as he discusses the symptoms that led to his RMC diagnosis, his treatment journey, things he found helpful for support, and his hopes for how to educate others about sickle cell trait and RMC for better health outcomes.

Transcript:

Lamar Valentina:

I’m Lamar Valentina, I was diagnosed September 25th, 2019. What prompted me to be checked was I had a lump that was literally right here, it kind of protruded out, and I had some really bad abdominal pain as well as flank pain on my left side, it was really unbearable, so those three things combined — I got really concerned and decided to go to the hospital.

I’m in the military, active-duty military, so working out and kind of taking breaks, it’s common for me to get lower back pain, but it was definitely a different lower back pain, and then with the added lump that was between here, it was literally right here. And this kind of has actually gone down, so that’s a sign from my oncologist that says that the cancer is shrinking based off treatment. So diagnosed on September 25th, 2019. I started chemotherapy on October 11th of 2019. There were a few options. I had some friends that work in cancer centers, and my ex-wife actually works with foundation on medicine, and they had connections at Dana Farber in Boston, and that’s where she lives with my son who’s 12, who will be 13 in March. Starting chemo on October 11th, the first cycle that I was on was Carboplatin-Taxol, I did that for about six cycles, and there was shrinkage, but due to COVID, we took a break to give my body a break, ’cause chemotherapy did a big number on my body, I lost a lot of weight, obviously my hair and my eyebrows, my hair is still gone, my eyebrows are still gone, and it just…

With my body adjusting to chemotherapy was pretty rough, but I handled it well, so actually that break… During that time, I said about three months, two months through my break, I want to say we did that until about February, and then we started back up in April, so about three months and that was more so because of COVID and creating delays in between. But once we got a scan and we saw that there was a little bit of growth, it wasn’t alarming growth, but there was some growth, but it still hadn’t gone to where it was when I first was diagnosed, so that was the good thing that it wasn’t as aggressive as it’s known to be.

Throughout this whole ordeal, it’s been family, friends. Throughout the beginning, you know you have a lot more support and it kind of balances out, which is fine, ’cause I’m a pretty introverted person anyway, but I have a great immediate circle that’s there to share positive affirmations and positive vibes and positive energy. And that’s honestly what helps me through that, along with music and staying productive, I’m still actively in school and still in the Air Force, active duty, I make 14 years, and next month in March, and my hope is that through this campaign and through everything else, we just continue to raise as much awareness as possible. I was always told growing up that sickle cell trait really was nothing to worry about, unless if I had a child with someone else that had the sickle cell trait, and then our child would be fully diagnosed with sickle cell, so I’ve never really even thought to be concerned about having a trait of sickle cell, so my hope is that through this campaign and through other everything else, we’re able to raise as much awareness as possible to grab the right people’s attention that are going to continue to put forth the proper research to help save more lives and of course, to live my life as long as possible, for as long as I’m here, and if I can hopefully inspire and motivate others along that through my hardships, hopefully that’ll help them to create a survival guide for their own lives moving forward. Whatever it is they may go through, but especially with RMC.

For anyone who’s recently diagnosed, my best advice is lean on your support team, your support circle, it’s going to be very, very hard, don’t be so quick to Google everything, but do try to make sure that you’re as informed as possible about your diagnosis about RMC, and then finding a community that fits. That’s exactly what I did as soon as I was diagnosed, of course. I did what I’m telling people not to do by Googling and everything, because once you Google everything, you’re going to get everything negative under the sun, but it is very important to be informed properly based off what you’re going to be going through, you’re down for the moment, but you’re not out, you just got a dig deep and make sure the people around you are sharing that positive energy and those positive vibes to continue to provide you with the motivation and then at a strength and the courage to fight, and it’s also okay to deal with the emotions that you may be going through. Some people feel that, “Oh, you got to be strong.” Being strong doesn’t mean not crying or not feeling sad, you’re going to feel every emotion imaginable once you are diagnosed.

So, it’s okay, the best thing is to do is to process that and hopefully have an outlet or somebody that you can share that with, and you can kind of unload it ’cause you don’t want to compartmentalize those feelings and those emotions because it doesn’t go anywhere, it just kind of festers, it’s like sweeping it under the rug, it’s going to pile up and just really, really become a lot.

So really, really lean on your support system, and if you don’t have a support system, I guarantee if you research it like I did. Reaching out to Cora Connor has been amazing, ’cause they put me in touch with other people that were going through what I’m going through, and talking with people who are going through, who can relate to what you’re going through is way different than talking to people who don’t really have an idea of what it is that you’re going through, not saying that they can’t help and they can’t be there for you, but it’s just, it’s a different type of comfort that comes from knowing someone that is literally sharing the same symptoms or going through the same treatment, or may have gone through the same treatment or the same procedures that you may be up against, and you can ask some questions and get a realistic answer from somebody with experience as opposed to getting assumptions or things from other people, but I would say stay positive. Stay as positive as possible. Don’t give up hope. Don’t give up hope.

It doesn’t have to be a significant other for other people that are going through if you’re single, it could just be your best friend, it could be a friend. Motivation and inspiration comes from the most strangest of places, and I’ll be witnessed. I’ll be the first to admit to that on the top of having someone, but there’s times when you often feel alone and you kind of think about how this impacts and affects them, those closest to you as well. So, I think taking that into consideration is something that people who are really diagnosed as well to guess we are the center of it, were the ones who actually are going through it, but the people that love and care about you, they’re going through it in a way as well too, they’re definitely affected and impacted by this too.