A Super Bowl champion battled rare kidney cancer

A Super Bowl champion battled rare kidney cancer

Former NFL running back and Super Bowl champion Ronnie Hillman lost his battle with cancer in December 2022. In a social media post, Hillman’s family shared he was diagnosed with renal medullary carcinoma (RMC), an aggressive type of kidney cancer, several months earlier.

The 31-year-old played with several teams but most notably played with the Denver Broncos, leading the team in rushing during Super Bowl 50. In a statement, the Denver Broncos described Hillman as “a key contributor to the winningest four-year period in franchise history” and said he will be “remembered by the organization for his warm smile and quiet intensity.”

In general, kidney cancer is difficult to diagnose because tumors can develop deep inside the body and can grow quite large without causing any pain or health problems.

“The majority of kidney cancers are incidental, serendipitous findings detected on imaging obtained for other reasons,” says Dr. Mark Waples, the department of urology director at Aurora Health Care Medical Group. “These incidentally detected cancers are more likely to consist of clear cell, papillary and chromophobe renal cancers. Renal medullary cancers are usually symptomatic when diagnosed.”

While Hillman’s diagnosis was vanishingly rare, RMC is more prominent in African American men with sickle cell trait. According to Dr. Waples, less than 1% of patients with kidney cancer are diagnosed with RMC; its prognosis is poor.

Hillman’s death has some sports fans wondering what signs or symptoms to watch out for when it comes to kidney health. It’s important to visit a doctor if you’re experiencing:

  • Blood in your urine
  • Pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen, back or sides
  • A mass or lump on your side or lower back

Kidney cancer is diagnosed with a form of cross-sectional imaging, like an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI. Treatment options include kidney removal and chemotherapy.

There are some risk factors that increase a person’s chances of kidney cancer, such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure or a family history of kidney cancer. Men are also diagnosed with kidney cancer twice as frequently as women.

One way to care for your kidneys is to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. Dr. Waples suggests following a low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and drinking plenty of water. It’s also beneficial to avoid using tobacco, binge drinking or consuming alcohol daily.

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About the Author

Danielle Mandella
Danielle Mandella

Danielle Mandella, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator in Greater Milwaukee, Wis.