Kidney disease doesn’t make the headlines, and that’s exactly why it’s putting one out of three people at risk under the table. The domino effect of a national obesity crisis leads to an overwhelmingly large diabetic population, which in turn causes kidney disease rates to rise with threatening persistence. As the incidences of this disease grows so should medicine’s focus on finding treatments for conditions that plague the body’s vital filter system known as the kidney — but focus requires funds, and funds are raised through marketing.

“It’s our job as practitioners to get the message out so we can intervene as early as possible,” Dr. Jeff Guillian, a nephrologist at South Denver Nephrology Associates, told Medical Daily. Nephrologists specialize in kidney care, and treating any kind of kidney-related diseases. “The first step is to recognize this is a major issue.”

It’s actually more of a public health crisis than most people realize. Kidney disease kills over 90,000 Americans every year, which accounts for more deaths than prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. By the end of 2014, approximately 40,000 women will have died of breast cancer, while 29,480 men will have died of prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The survival rates for breast cancer are promising — if cancer cells are found in stage one, the patient has a 100 percent survival rate, stage two has a 93 percent chance, and stage three provides a 72 percent chance of survival.

Turn to prostate cancer and you’ll find the same hopeful odds. One in six men will receive a prostate cancer diagnosis at one point in their lifetime. Within five years of that diagnosis 100 percent of the men survive, and 10 years after diagnosis 99 percent survive. The rates are still in their favor 15 years later when 94 percent of those who were diagnosed are still alive. Can these alarmingly promising survival rates be attributed to how easy it is to treat breast and prostate cancer? No. As it turns out, it comes down to the bank account more than the oncological state.

In 2013, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) spent $559.2 million dollars on breast cancer research and an additional $255.6 million on prostate cancer, with a total of $814.8 million. Compare that to the $591 million the NCI puts toward kidney disease research, and a stark realization can be drawn. Even though kidney disease kills significantly more patients than breast and prostate cancer combined every year, NCI still gives $223.8 million more to the two cancers. By what logic is this based on?

Marketing towards disease campaigns determines survival for those diagnosed. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The Power Of Disease Marketing

It all comes down to the marketing. It’s easy to forget that a hospital, foundation, institution, and even governmental branch of medical research still need to run on a business structure in order to succeed in a capitalist society. The prevalence of kidney disease is drastically overshadowed because of marketing strategy. Nephologists such as Dr. Guillian by no means want to take away the incredible strides and breakthroughs breast and prostate cancer have made in fundraising and research. Instead, he says he wants to use them as an example.

Think about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — thousands of people never even knew what amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was before the viral videos made their way across the country and into some parts of the world. Either a disease grabs the attention of millions through a clever campaign such as ALS or a celebrity develops the disease and turns into an advocate to raise awareness. There are limited avenues for breaking into the public platform of concern, unless we change the fundraising business model.

What if we raised funds based on the deadliest diseases that are affecting the most lives, instead of donating toward what was marketed to us? There’s a direct correlation between the amount of research funds are aimed at treating a particular disease and the survival rate of said disease. If we followed the death rates instead of the commercials, we could cross off the deadliest diseases one by one and exponentially increase cumulative survivals. A world without the death sentence of a certain diagnosis, such as pancreatic cancer, could change medical research and quality of life as we know it.

In the long run the country is losing more money by misplacing funds in diseases that aren’t as life-threatening. By the end stage of renal disease, which is when the kidneys fail, it winds up costing $40 billion in public and private funds each year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Yet, more than 26 million Americans suffer from some type of kidney disease, and most people are unaware that they're even at risk.

Living With Kidney Disease

Take, for example, 43-year-old John Gillespie who was diagnosed with kidney disease after rushing to the emergency room 15 years ago. He was a full-time student doing some schoolwork at his desk at home when he felt a strange tingling near his ankles. When he looked down and saw they had swelled to two times their normal size, he asked a nurse he knew if it was anything to be alarmed about. “Yes,” she replied. “John you have to go to the ER right now.”

Gillespie was experiencing the first sign of kidney failure, and discovered his kidneys weren’t filtering the protein in his body correctly and they were on their way to completely collapsing. He had a type of kidney disease known as membranous glomerulonephritis that caused the immune system to repeatedly attack the kidneys for reasons unknown. Every day, the two fist-sized organs filter waste out of about 120 to 150 quarts of blood and produce one to two quarts of urine. Blood delivers nutrients to the rest of your body and breaks down nutrients, such as protein.

“Fortunately, the nephrologist took immediate action to avoid kidney failure and put me on Cytoxan, which is a cancer medication that shuts off my immune system’s response,” Gillespie said. “It causes sterility and hair loss. My wife and I still wanted kids, so she asked the doctor for a month. We call our daughter a miracle.” 

In addition to sterility, Gillespie was faced with a quadruple bypass surgery 10 years later because his condition resulted in high cholesterol. His genetic susceptibility also played a part in his 1,030 cholesterol level, but he believes the chemicals he was breathing in at work could have exacerbated or even caused his kidney disease in the first place.

“You’re instantly faced with your own mortality,” Gillespie said. “In my experience of living with kidney disease, my type in particular is manageable, but it will never go away. I lose 60 to 65 percent of protein I taken in. The average person will keep 85 percent of their protein, so I have to eat extra protein in order to fill in for the loss. I can’t drink alcohol excessively either. A beer with your dinner is fine, but if you like a margarita with your enchiladas, forget it. So I maintain my disease through diet.”

Confronting your own mortality doesn’t have to be the fate for thousands diagnosed with various diseases every single year. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases wants more than just maintenance for those battling kidney disease. Money is the only way to deliver better treatment options, which is why it's asked the Senate and House to write a bill that’ll set aside $150 million in research funds every year for the next 10 years. It’s up to the public to draw the attention of the government committees to get the bill written but without marketing, who will care?