Robert Hill of Harmony, PA was once an avid runner. In 2012, he began experiencing horrible fatigue, difficulty maintaining his normal exercise routine and a bit of weight gain, but he attributed this to not being able to exercise the way he normally did.
He believed he was just burned out from work and community services activities he participated in. However, on one unnaturally warm day in the winter, Robert’s normal long run suddenly ended at the top of his street. His chest felt as though it was frozen from the inside out. Once returning home, he began having a deep, hard and painful cough which soon produced blood. He knew something was wrong and immediately went to the doctor.
Robert had a CT scan which revealed Metastatic Renal Cell Carcinoma in both kidneys which was categorized as Stage IV because of innumerable lung metastases. He was referred to UPMC Hillman Cancer Center for treatment.
Robert was familiar with UPMC in part because of Mario Lemieux sharing his experience with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. His wife, Andi, also underwent cancer treatment at UPMC in 2000.
His first thought after diagnosis was “I hope I get the chance to fight like she did.” After learning that treatment options were available and they were going to be difficult, Robert believed following her example and battling cancer while still being a cheerful and happy person was best for him.
“I realized how fortunate I was to live in a city know for leading-edge cancer care.”
In April of 2012, Robert underwent major surgery to remove his left kidney and portions of his right kidney. Almost immediately after surgery, Robert began treatment called High-Dose Interleukin-2, or HD IL-2, to stabilize the lung metastases under the care of Leonard Appleman, MD, PhD.
“To say this was brutal would be an understatement,” he said.
By September 2012, Robert began taking oral chemotherapy treatments. From 2015 to 2017, Robert received 32 IV infusions of Nivolumab, a form of IV chemotherapy.
Throughout his time at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Robert and his family have gotten to know the staff well. He specifically mentioned nurse Lisa Zanardelli and the attentive care she gave him. Lisa always asked the question “Is there anything I can do for you that will make you feel better than you do right now?” Asking such a simple question was life-changing for Robert, and it’s even a question he asks now in professional interactions.
“She was unbelievably kind and comforting during what was the most intensely harrowing experience of my life. Many of the nurses and staff in the treatment area as well as the technicians in the radiology areas are like family to me now. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve them, and I don’t know how I’d get along without them.”
Robert also spoke highly of Dr. Appleman and his willingness to teach as he treats. “Dr. Appleman is willing to spend whatever time he must in order to allow me to understand whatever it is we must know to make a truly informed decision,” he said. “He has made himself available in every way possible and every time imaginable. It’s quite a privilege to know you can contact your physician at any time, and comforting to know that he will share anything he knows to increase my level of understanding about any issue we encounter. “
Robert is still in treatment and will most likely always be in some sort of treatment. He is currently still taking an oral targeted therapy pill daily and receives a monthly infusion of Nivolumab.
Life after diagnosis and treatment has changed for Robert. He has learned to adjust to things as his speed at which he once moved has significantly reduced. Now, the only thing he is unable to do is run. “I’ve had to learn to forget about those things I can no longer do and focus on doing what I love at the speed and intensity this health condition allows.”
Robert is living a happy life with his wife and recently became a first-time grandfather to twins.