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A Tribute to Ken Youner — An Inspiration to Cancer Survivors Everywhere

Posted by on February 15, 2012 in RCC News & Research - 10 Comments


Ken YounerWe learned that Dr. Ken Youner died of kidney cancer yesterday. For those of us in the kidney cancer community, this is heartbreaking news, but what will be remembered is his life and all that he gave to others, especially those struggling with cancer. Dr. Ken, as he was known, was a retired gastroenterologist, and he applied his medical knowledge to helping untold numbers of cancer patients and survivors understand this disease, improve quality of life and find hope — this last, most of all.

Dena and I met Dr. Ken during one of his trips to Washington, D.C., in his role as medical adviser to the non-profit organization Action to Cure Kidney Cancer. We were meeting with a kidney cancer researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. I was just coming off of my first round of IL-2 in the early spring of 2010. I looked terrible, the chemical burn from the treatment having left sores on my face. I was pale, drained and still having trouble walking. Ken sat with me in the lobby of the NIH and told me how good I looked, and he was sincere. He knew what IL-2 can do to a person. He told me how proud he was that I could join him and others in the group despite struggling with the side effects. He brought an optimism and aura of hope that was healing in its own way, and from that moment forward he became an inspiration to me to maintain my own optimism and fierce determination to battle cancer and not allow it to overtake my life.

Ken’s personal story is a remarkable one. Diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2003, he lived a full — happy and determined, I suspect he might say — life even with Stage IV cancer. He motivated others through his example of practicing the advice he offered, of maintaining a hopeful perspective and a healthy physical regimen, by regularly participating in and even organizing cycling events to raise money for cancer. He founded the Cecile and Ken Youner Fund for Cancer Research after his wife, Cecile, died of breast cancer. He spoke at conferences and engaged online cancer communities through ACOR, a listserv dedicated to cancer patients and survivors, and through social media and blogging. In October of 2010, while training for one of the cycling rides to raise money for his cancer fund, he suffered another severe setback when he flipped over his bike and hit the ground headfirst, resulting in spinal damage that would paralyze him. During his recovery and comeback — and, yes, again he showed his fierce will to live — he was forced off of Sutent, his cancer treatment.

Ken’s response? Let me use his own words:

I now will try to return to some of my work to help all of those with kidney cancer out there. If at the same time I can help those with disabilities understand that they can do work even with this those disabilities I will even be happier … I am doing my best to continue to fight on and do what I can with the time I have left to help those like me in the kidney cancer community and now in the New World of disability. I hope I can continue working on the [ACOR] list and help those patients and continue to answer questions about kidney cancer. I will continue in the fight and I look forward to communicating further with all of my great friends out there in the world fighting kidney cancer.

I stumbled upon a video that Ken made, a touchingly personal video reflecting on his life and offering advice to his children and grandchildren. It is clear how much he loved them, and at one point he notes proudly that he “managed to weave a wonderful family together.” I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to share that video here, due to its personal nature. However, I would like to share one reflection he offered to his children but, in a way, to all of us. Looking into the camera, he noted that everybody is responsible for his or her own life. He apologized for it sounding “trite” but emphasized that if you want something badly enough, you can achieve it. It might not be easy, but determination would see you through. “The key to success,” he said, “was persistence.” Nobody has proven that piece of advice better than Ken himself.

It is with very fond memories that we say goodbye, Dr. Ken. And thank you.

Ken’s family has asked that donations in Ken’s honor and memory be made to Action to Kidney Cancer, where he served on the board.

  • http://www.facebook.com/feedallascaitlin Renee R Robertson Miller

    God Bless everything you did for all of us as a fighter and a survivor, You were a awesome person. Our love,Prayers and Thanks be with your family during this time.

  • Liz Monahan

    Chris, this is a beautiful tribute.  I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Ken in person, but he did offer me advice and encouragement over email, and I always enjoyed reading his posts on the ACOR Kidney-Onc group.  His passion for cycling and his firm belief that the exercise was helping him tolerate his treatments was an inspiration to me. His accident was such a tragedy; I’m sure that had that not happened, he would be with us still, vital and wonderful as ever.  I’m so sad about his passing but glad I got the chance to get to know him.

  • Erin Oliver

    For some reason yesterday, I thought about Dr. Ken, googled him to hope to find a status, and came upon the same video.  I thought it was funny that he was so surprised about how little he had to say. I thought his idea about attending his own funeral was brilliant!  I even asked my mom if she had heard anything about him lately.  Strange how the universe connects us all, eventually.  

  • Karen in Ottawa Canada

    Great tribute Chris.  Sad to lose another of our KC family – he was a wonderful support for so many

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1131564503 Linda Cox

    I was so blessed to meet Ken during the times we lobbied together in Washington. I fondly remember our visit as we shared the cab traveling from where we all met in the morning to the senate building and again when we all met up at lunch in the senate building.  Ken and I, with others in the group, spoke to the aides and we explained why WE were there and why it is so important to receive funding for kidney cancer research and awareness. 
    I have always admired and respected the knowledge he so graciously shared with our kidney onc family as each battled their disease and thanked him often for his input.  I, as everyone that knew him, was so saddened when he had his accident and could no longer take treatments, but like Chris and other said, he turned his physical passion into a continued passion to help others and working with his photography.  He had many talents and I am sure he will continue to live on in his children and grandchildren.  I hope they will see how many people’s lives he touched and how respected he was. 
    I pray Ken’s family will feel the love, support and prayers that are being sent their way.
    Linda Cox

  • Apple


    I know the Great Dr Ken is with his beloved Cecile. 

    He suffered her loss and his battle with cancer continued

    He taught and inspired and smiled as if unwounded

    A lesson for all in humility, a doctor, husband, father and friend

    He continued helping others despite his own failing health

    A warrior in the battle against renal cell cancer

    A caring caregiver, stricken but not defeated

    The love of his life taken away, a devastating blow

    To give up and surrender he wouldn’t be questioned

    Instead he became stronger and dedicated to all of us

    Inspirational by act and dedicated thru deed

    A gentle rest has been well earned by this unique being

    The world will continue without his presence for sure

    A little less brighter perhaps and uncertain of course

    But knowing this wonderful man was a privilege indeed

    And a part of me has perished as well

    A true hero has left

    I will miss him much

  • Linda Battle

    Chris this is a wonderful tribute to Dr Ken and his family.

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  • Alan David

    I, like Ken, was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer in the early 2000′s and came to know Ken through our mutual work with Action To Cure Kidney Cancer.  I came to admire Ken during one of our trips to Washington, sitting with him for hours on an Amtrak train, back and forth from New York, joking and enjoying life for the entire journey.

    Knowing what he was going through, and with knowledge of his wife’s own breast cancer fight, I was amazed as to his strength.  Ken had retired from his medical practice to devote his time, energies and knowledge in our fight to find better methods of detection, treatments, and someday a cure for kidney cancer.  This was who the man was, sacrificng his own practice to achieve a higher goal.

    I last met with Ken, at a fundraiser in Connecticut, shortly before his tragic biking accident.  We where both speakers, but his words were, as always, far more elegant than mine.

    Ken, I miss you.

  • Eileen

    I found Dr. Ken and ACKC during a web search for Stage IV Kidney Cancer. My husband was diagnosed in late January 2010. Dr. Ken’s story and blog is what gave me hope and strength to cope with the devastating news. My husband died November 5, 2011. Because of Dr. Ken and all those who bravely shared their journey with cancer, I was able to provide my husband with support, acceptance, and comfort during his battle. When the end came, I had stayed with him 24/7. It wasn’t easy as we have a 5 year old autistic child and a 2 year old. Together, we lost our fear of dying. We witnessed strong, clear spiritual events that brought us peace. Although I don’t like the fact my husband died, I am at peace. He accepted his fate. He knew his God was with him. I know his spirit has not left me. I asked him to watch over us especially Josef my autistic child. As I write this I am astounded at the progress Josef has made since November. He is actually now communicating and relating to others for the first time. So I know my husband kept his promise. Cancer sucks but if there were ever a happy ending to the story, this is it. I am so very grateful to Dr. Ken and other cancer survivors who showed me that having cancer is not the end of the world.

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