With the help of Keck Medicine of USC and Inderbir S. Gill, MD, actor and television host Cameron Mathison refuses to let cancer get in his way.
When his phone started ringing in the middle of a golf game and he saw his doctor was calling, Cameron Mathison suspected he was about to get bad news.
He had an MRI earlier that day. His gut told him the doctor wouldn’t call so quickly if nothing was wrong. Indeed, the MRI had revealed he had a kidney tumor that likely was cancerous.
“When you hear ‘cancer,’ it is very surreal,” Cameron says about his August 2019 diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma.
“I am really active and I am known for being super healthy and it just didn’t match up with my reality. But my new reality was that I had cancer.”
Self-advocacy leads to kidney cancer diagnosis
Staying healthy and feeling his best has always been a priority for the actor and television host. He hosts a daily morning show on the Hallmark Channel called Home and Family.
He is an anchor and correspondent on Entertainment Tonight. He also has an active acting career and is a parent to two teenagers.
Maintaining a high level of energy is imperative for Cameron. He works out regularly, eats only healthy food, eschews alcohol, and is diligent about keeping regular appointments with his doctor.
In spite of his best efforts, there were a few issues with his body that nagged at him. He struggled for years to figure out why his stomach often bothered him.
Neither he nor his doctors could understand why tests consistently turned up low white blood cell count and low immune function.
Though his doctor said he probably didn’t need one, Cameron pushed to have an MRI. He hoped it would finally shed some light on his digestive problems.
“I am very in touch with my body and I am really glad I pushed for this,” he says.
In this way, Cameron was a lot like the typical kidney cancer patient. Most people receive a kidney cancer diagnosis inadvertently during imaging tests for something else.
Renal cell carcinoma is the most common kind of kidney cancer among adults. But there is no screening test and no symptoms in the early stages.
Only later, when it is more dangerous, do most people start to experience symptoms. Symptoms include blood in the urine, a lump on the belly or side, loss of appetite and lethargy.
After sharing the news with his wife, one of the first people he called was a college buddy who is now a urologist in Canada.
“He basically stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘If this were me, I would go see a doctor named Inderbir Gill,’” Cameron recalls.
Innovative robotic surgery saves patient’s kidney
Because USC urologists have played a central role in developing these complex procedures, they are among the world’s most experienced teams performing them.
“Robotic partial nephrectomy is one of the worldwide calling cards of USC Urology,” says Dr. Gill, Distinguished Professor and chair of the Catherine and Joseph Aresty Department of Urology, Shirley and Donald Skinner Chair in Urologic Cancer Surgery and associate dean of clinical innovation at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
“Dr. Gill is a miracle worker. I am so grateful for the way things turned out.”Cameron Mathison, patient, Keck Medicine of USC Urology
The first time they met, Dr. Gill discussed the diagnosis, prognosis and surgical plan with Cameron. He explained that he hoped to remove the tumor using robotic techniques that would have Cameron back on his feet quicker than open surgery. He would save as much of the kidney as possible to prevent renal problems later in life.
In Cameron’s case, Dr. Gill was able to remove the tumor using a technique he developed called zero-ischemia partial nephrectomy. This procedure involves removing the tumor without cutting off the blood supply to the kidney during the surgery.
The team at Keck Medicine developed this technique to avoid any damage to the kidney during surgery, which keeps patients healthier in the long term. In the end, Dr. Gill was able to save about 80% of Cameron’s kidney.
“I would not think he should have any kidney function issues down the road given he has one normal kidney and 80% of this one,” Dr. Gill says.
He adds that he will continue to monitor Cameron’s condition in the years to come, even though there is only a 2% to 3% chance of recurrence.
Gratitude for a ‘miracle worker,’ renewed energy
Cameron returned home to his wife and kids a few days after his surgery, which took place in September 2019. Though still sore, he says he felt good in only a matter of days.
“My wife and kids had to keep reminding me to sit down and take it easy,” he recalls.
Within a week, he was both surprised and delighted that he was able to get back to one of his most important daily routines — a morning meditation and workout that he has done for years. It centers his mind and charges his body for the day ahead.
His morning routine is a modified version of sun salutations — a series of yoga moves that involve bending at the waist and holding several poses. Though he performed these moves slowly and with less intensity than normal, he says the ability to do this so quickly after surgery nearly brought him to tears.
Within two weeks, he was back on the set of Home and Family. He also made an appearance on Good Morning America to talk about his experience with cancer. He says regaining full strength took several months, but now he is at full speed again.
Cameron understands that while he did not expect a cancer diagnosis, many things went right for him in this ordeal. He says he is glad he pushed to have the MRI, even though his primary care doctor didn’t think it was necessary.
He is grateful he lives a healthy lifestyle, because it may have kept the tumor from growing and spreading. And he is certain that he ended up with the right surgeon.
“Dr. Gill is a miracle worker,” he says. “I am so grateful for the way things turned out.”