Back pain led to kidney cancer diagnosis for survivor turned advocate

Dr. Brugarolas and Merlinda Chelette
Dr. James Brugarolas, left, with Merlinda Chelette, who meets weekly with newly diagnosed patients in the Kidney Cancer Program as part of a patient advocacy program established in conjunction with a coveted SPORE (Specialized Program of Research Excellence) award from the National Cancer Institute.

DALLAS – October 26, 2016 – Four years ago, Merlinda Chelette was a hardworking ER nurse who suffered from excruciating back pain. When it became too painful to bear, she initially sought chiropractic care, but the pain got worse. Her search for relief eventually led to a radiologist, who found the surprising cause of her back pain was kidney cancer.

“The news was devastating. I had a tumor in my right kidney which had spread to the spine. Cancer had eaten away 80 percent of one of the lumbar vertebrae, and it fractured,” said Ms. Chelette. “I felt disbelief. No one in my family has cancer.” 

Ms. Chelette was diagnosed with clear cell renal carcinoma, the most common form of kidney cancer. After completing her initial radiation therapy, she came to Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center to volunteer for a clinical trial and began treatment with sunitinib. She is now celebrating four years of survivorship.

“I’ve kept my nursing license up and I hope to go back to work. Meanwhile, I teach Sunday school to elementary and preschool students,” said Ms. Chelette.  “I’ve learned that I can still have a good quality of life during cancer treatment – and who knows how long that life might last.”

Merlinda Chelette: How meeting other patients with stage IV kidney cancer transformed my journey

Nearly 400,000 Americans are now living with a diagnosis of kidney cancer and more than 60,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with kidney cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Texas has the fifth highest rate of this cancer in the U.S. and it is the fourth most common treated at the Kidney Cancer Program of the Simmons Cancer Center. Five-year survival rate averages run from 81 percent for stage 1, when cancer is contained in the kidney, to about 53 percent for stage three when it has spread beyond the kidney and just 8 percent for stage four, when the cancer spreads to more distant parts of the body or other organs. However, survival rates at the Kidney Cancer Program are better than national benchmarks.

There are no existing methods for early detection of kidney cancer when it is most treatable. It is often found indirectly after it has spread, for example through a scan performed for a different reason, as was the case for Ms. Chelette. When her back pain was found to be kidney cancer, it had already spread to the spine, requiring both surgery and radiation.

“She has done quite well on sunitinib for 15 months. Her cancer remains contained, she has not required additional surgeries, and she is enjoying a reasonably good quality of life,” said her physician, Dr. James Brugarolas, Kidney Cancer Program leader at the Simmons Cancer Center and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern. Ms. Chelette was helped by an active volunteer program “and now she is helping others.”

 Not only a survivor, Ms. Chelette now meets weekly with newly diagnosed patients in the Kidney Cancer Program as part of a patient advocacy program established in conjunction with a coveted SPORE (Specialized Program of Research Excellence) award from the National Cancer Institute.

Only the second such award for kidney cancer in the nation, UTSW’s $11 million Kidney Cancer SPORE program involves four innovative disease and clinical research teams seeking to better understand how kidney cancer develops and spreads, and to develop new therapies targeting adult and pediatric kidney cancer.

“The key components of our program are our scientific research, cutting-edge treatments, and clinical trials. Thanks to extraordinary support from the National Cancer Institute through the recent SPORE award, we are excited to ramp up our work on finding new treatments through discovery, and bring them to patients more quickly,” said Dr. Brugarolas, Virginia Murchison Linthicum Scholar in Medical Research.  

The 2016 kidney cancer award marks the second SPORE grant for UT Southwestern, which for 20 years has led a multi-institutional SPORE program in lung cancer that is the largest thoracic oncology effort in the U.S.

Hearing about all the researchers who are working toward developing new treatments helps patients like Ms. Chelette keep a positive outlook.

“Just because you have kidney cancer doesn’t mean your life is over,” said Ms. Chelette, a 20-year resident of Arlington, Texas. “It feels good to tell people that I’ve survived for four years.  I tell them: Just hang in there and endure the first part of treatment. Don’t get discouraged.”

UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in North Texas and one of just 47 NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation. Simmons Cancer Center includes 13 major cancer care programs and its education and training programs support and develop the next generation of cancer researchers and clinicians. Simmons Cancer Center is among only 30 U.S. cancer research centers to be designated by the National Cancer Institute as a National Clinical Trials Network Lead Academic Participating Site. 

Kidney Cancer Symptoms


Many cases of early-stage renal cancer do not cause symptoms. People who do have symptoms with kidney cancer may experience:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Non injury-related pain in one side of the lower back
  • A lump on the lower back or side
  • Unexplained fatigue or weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Prolonged and unexplained fever

Risk Factors

Risk factors for kidney cancer include:

  • Smoking – Smokers develop kidney cancer more often than nonsmokers do
  • Gender – Men develop kidney cancer at nearly twice the rate women do
  • Age – The average age of people diagnosed with kidney cancer is 64
  • Obesity
  • Workplace exposure to some industrial chemicals, including the solvent trichloroethylene
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Genetic conditions leading to familial renal cancer such as von Hippel-Lindau disease, hereditary papillary and leiomyoma renal-cell carcinomas, and Birt-Hogg-Dube (BHD) syndrome
  • End-stage kidney disease

Visit our Kidney Cancer Program site to learn more about symptoms and risk factors. 

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. The faculty of almost 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in about 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients and oversee approximately 2.2 million outpatient visits a year.


Media Contact: Lori Sundeen Soderbergh

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