Tom Marino: A Chance Discovery of Kidney Cancer

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania discusses his experiences after his 1999 cancer diagnosis.

Excruciating pain jolted U.S. Rep. Tom Marino (R., Pa.) awake around 2 a.m. one morning in 1999. Marino, at the time serving as the Lycoming County District Attorney, was in Pittsburgh attending a conference.

The pain was so intense that he had to call a friend to help him from his hotel room and drive him to the local emergency room. Tests identified the source of the pain as kidney stones, but also revealed something more troubling – a cyst on his left kidney. He flew home the next day and immediately saw his family physician, who sent him to a kidney specialist.

“They said, “You have something in there that is very probably cancer,” Rep. Marino said. “As soon you hear the word cancer, a million things run through your mind.”

Naturally, he worried about his family. Who would take care of them if he wasn’t around? He and his wife had just adopted a second child and their daughter, who was four at the time, has cystic fibrosis.

“After I got over the fact that I needed surgery, I got really angry, because I always took care of myself. I exercise all the time. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke.”

The recommended course was surgery to remove the kidney. Instead of immediately following this recommendation, Rep. Marino went to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion with a surgeon who had pioneered the so-called partial nephrectomy – a procedure to remove the diseased part of the kidney and leave the remainder functioning.

After three days of testing, the team in Cleveland determined that he was a candidate for a partial nephrectomy. He soon underwent the procedure, which successfully removed the cancer.

He was then closely followed with scans and blood tests every three months.

“From 1999 to 2009, everything showed up fine,” he said.

But in 2009, almost exactly 10 years after his initial diagnosis, tests revealed a tumor in the remaining portion of his left kidney. Rep. Marino returned to Cleveland for another surgery.

“We got through that, got home, and everything was fine,” he explained. “Then in 2012 – I was elected to Congress in 2010 – the same thing happened again. This time the tumors were growing on the right side. So I went back out to Cleveland and they again did a partial nephrectomy. That went fine and I’m hanging in with about 40 percent of a kidney.”

He gets regular checkups that show his remaining kidney continues to function well but recognizes that eventually he may need a transplant or to go on dialysis.

Rep. Marino explained that his career has always been important to him and that as a prosecutor and now a member of Congress, he’s always been busy. His experiences with kidney cancer have taught him to emphasize the quality of life he leads.

“I spend more time with my kids and my wife because you just, you never know what’s going to happen, either a bus running you over or cancer of some type,” he said. “If it weren’t for the doctor in Pittsburgh looking at the X-rays and seeing what was there, I don’t think I’d be around.”

Rep. Marino also explained that the awful experience of kidney stones was actually a blessing because it led to his cancer diagnosis and treatment before the disease had spread beyond his kidney.

As a member of Congress, he is a proponent of biomedical research both from a personal perspective and a practical perspective.

“Let’s put the emotion aside for a moment. It’s economically a wise thing to do,” he said, noting that investing in the research leading to better treatments and cures will reduce the burden of disease both on people’s lives and on the nation’s economy.

”We’re going to find a cure for cancer. We’re going to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. We’re going to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. We can find cures for these diseases because nowhere in the world do we have the talent like we have in the United States – the doctors, the nurses, the assistants, the scientists, the PhDs, the technicians who are all devoted to this important work.”

“I feel that being here in Congress, I’m in a position to help improve the quality of life for people in this country and around the world.”

Read or download Rep. Marino’s story in the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2015.