Dr Chone Cannon's secrets to managing chronic kidney disorder through health and fitness


Doctor Chone Cannon had just graduated when she was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome (damage to the kidneys). With a treatment plan in place and a determination to take control of her life, she looked to the future. Her secret? A focus on physical and mental wellbeing - and some big sporting events!

"Before I was diagnosed, I was very active," says Chone. "Once I got sick in 2016, my training stopped. Four years later, I joined the gym again - in February 2020, just before our nationwide alert level 5 lockdown. Gyms closed immediately so I decided to take up running, which went well. Then, I decided I needed a bigger goal."

Chone hopes to inspire people with chronic illnesses to look past their diagnosis

"I have some other big sporting events in my sights for 2021 and am so driven to complete these challenges to raise awareness of nephrotic syndrome and also of chronic kidney disease (which is the loss of kidney function due to a number of factors but mainly due to diabetes and high blood pressure).

"I am so driven to complete these challenges to raise awareness of nephrotic syndrome and also of chronic kidney disease (which is the loss of kidney function caused by a number of factors, mainly diabetes and high blood pressure).

"Healthy living is critical in maintaining kidney function no matter the form of kidney disease you're dealing with," says Chone.

"I want to show both adults and children who have kidney disease or any chronic illness, anyone feeling depressed and tired, that you can make positive changes if you really want to and achieve all that you want for yourself. You shouldn't let any chronic syndrome stop you," she says. "In fact, I know of inspiring people who are on dialysis to manage their chronic kidney disease, and who are also living healthily and managing triathlons, which is amazing. We don't all have to aspire to this level, but we should decide what 'dreaming big' means for ourselves and go for it."

Chone is diagnosed with a lifelong kidney disease at the age of 29

"I was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome in 2016," says Chone, now 34 years old. "Our kidneys filter our blood through a very sensitive filtration system. Nephrotic syndrome, simply put, means there are holes in the filtration layers. Protein and other elements that you are not supposed to lose through the kidneys pass through the damaged filters into the urine, and this causes all manner of complications."

"I have an Instagram page, @thenephroticdoctor , for those who would like to learn more about the challenges people with nephrotic syndrome face."

  • Nephrotic syndrome refers to group of symptoms that occur when the kidneys are not working correctly. It's also a form of chronic renal disease (chronic kidney disease). It usually involves damage to the clusters of tiny blood vessels in the kidneys that filter water and excess waste from the blood. Damage to this filtration system means that people who have this condition lose protein and other important elements through their urine. The condition also increases the risk of other chronic conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels. It's most common in children between the ages of one and six years old and is usually managed with medicine and lifestyle changes.

"This condition is most common in children as they tend to get it after a viral or bacterial infection, and it usually corrects itself later. The condition is relatively rare in adults."

"We thankfully caught the condition very early"

"I thought I was completely healthy at the time of my diagnosis, so it came as a shock," she says. "A week before my diagnosis, I felt like I had some water retention and puffy feet. Though not normal for me, I saw the doctor and was admitted to hospital the following day for doctors to find out what was wrong. We thankfully caught the condition very early, which means that by the time I was diagnosed, my kidney function was still normal but worsening slowly."

In Chone's case, the root cause of her illness is autoimmune. This means that her own immune system has attacked the kidneys and caused damage and it's not clear why this has happened. "I manage it with medicine, steroids and healthy lifestyle habits," she says. "The medicines have, at times, made me feel really terrible - you gain weight, there is moodiness, your sleep is affected and one of the side effects of the medicines is osteoporosis."

One of the first side effects that she encountered was that her body swelled from a petite 49kg to over 60kg due to fluid retention linked to the medicine. She was uncomfortable, with heavy, swollen feet and fatigue.

"I've never been pregnant, but I can imagine it to be the experience of women in late pregnancy. Walking upstairs or distances was difficult. I had to progress to immune suppressants."

Chone's journey to remission and lifelong maintenance of her condition

Chone adds that the mental fight was always about keeping sight of the horizon. "When you are in it, it is difficult. However, as a medical practitioner, I felt comfort in that I knew what to expect. And after three months of recuperating, I had to get back to work and life."

She went back to work at an East London hospital near her home, then moved to Mullingar in Ireland for a stint in residency for almost three years before returning to South Africa to live in Joburg. "In Ireland, I found a specialist who took excellent care of me and got me into remission. This means I no longer had symptoms of nephrotic syndrome and so I've been off the steroids since March 2017. I have found immune suppressant therapy quite successful and I have been fairly well since starting on it while in Ireland. Even though I am in remission, the disease still requires lifelong maintenance, so I take immune suppressants long-term."

"My Discovery Health Medical Scheme membership covers the cost of my medicine in full. We are decreasing my dose slowly and hope that I will be able to come off the immune suppressant medicine, but there is always the chance I could relapse."

  • Did you know that Discovery Health Medical Scheme's Kidney Care programme is based on international best practice guidelines and aims to make sure patients with chronic kidney disease who require dialysis get the best quality of care and access to quality of life?

Chone's secrets to supporting one's kidney disease treatment with optimal lifestyle habits

"I follow all the advice given to patients with any form of chronic renal disease," she explains. "However, I follow it from a preventive point of view as I have normal kidney function at the moment and will do all I can to make sure things stay that way."

A healthy diet is so important. "I follow a plant-based diet as far as possible, but still have meat when I want it. It's also a low sodium diet overall and I make sure that my protein intake is not too high."

Stress management is key as well as ensuring good sleep quality and quantity. "Chronic conditions can often be triggered or worsened by rampant stress and an imbalance of stress hormones. The body needs rest to optimise immune system function and healing."

Chone makes sure that regular exercise and a fit lifestyle are her norm. "I have a daily training schedule which keeps me going. It is in my diary, so I know I have to get my training done every morning." Chone is a Vitality member on Diamond Vitality status and is planning to achieve this status again in 2021. She also belongs to the Team Vitality Running club. She works with fitness coaches (particularly to help her to train for the cycling and swimming legs of possible down-the-line triathlons she has her sights on). "I train every day and on Monday I do yoga. I'm up at 04:00 and I work out before my work day starts. On the weekends I run or cycle outdoors and swim."

Her journey to fitness has been a slow and careful one. "Once I was able to resume exercising in 2019, I started by tracking my steps and activity. Whether I was walking, doing yoga or any really mild activity, I tracked it. I know that if I overexert myself I can retain fluid, which is uncomfortable, so I built up my exercise levels carefully."

As a medical professional, she exercises within the guidelines set out by her specialist and says she knows her own limits. "I monitor myself and I listen to my body, and if I am not feeling too great I won't push myself," she says.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Chone

"In the beginning the pandemic was terrifying for me," says Chone. "That's because at the start of 2020 I was working on the frontlines in a hospital casualty, and we didn't know a lot about the disease. Being on immune suppressants and having a chronic condition made me very high-risk for severe COVID-19 illness. I was very concerned. I was exposed to someone who had COVID-19 while working in casualty, but thankfully I did not contract the disease."

"Then I went to work in general practice and was still concerned about my exposure. I have since moved into the corporate space and still try to be as careful as possible. I live alone and work from home, and I am only exposed to people when I am shopping or at the gym. But I am very careful about taking all preventive measures to limit my risk of exposure to COVID-19. Even if I hadn't developed kidney disease, I would still have been extremely cautious about adhering to preventive measures as active people always are. We don't want to get sick and miss out on our training!"

The Discovery Health Medical Scheme is an independent non-profit entity governed by the Medical Schemes Act, and regulated by the Council for Medical Schemes. It is administered by a separate company, Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, an authorised financial services provider.

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