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He’s smooth on the ice – a professional hockey player – but when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Christopher “Chris” Kushneriuk looked to IU Health to help him navigate a rough terrain.
He’s amazed but he’s not surprised. Christopher “Chris”Kushneriuk has grown to appreciate a certain level of care. It’s something he calls “remarkable.” It’s also a word he uses to describe his IU Health oncologist Dr. Lawrence Einhorn.
“I literally just emailed Dr. Einhorn 15 minutes ago and he responded immediately. I can’t imagine how full his email in box must be but he must be pretty crafty when he types from his iPad,” said Kushneriuk. The observation is interesting given that Dr. Einhorn is best known for his successful treatment of testicular cancer - germ cell tumors - using a mix of high does chemotherapies and peripheral stem cell transplant.
But Kushneriuk already knows that. He traveled more than 600 miles from his home in Ottawa, Canada seeking care for the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men ages 15-44. In the United States an estimated 9,310 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer each year. Many travel from throughout the United States and around the world to design a treatment plan with Dr. Einhorn.
And Kushneriuk hasn’t made that trip just once. Last year when he had a recurrence, he returned to IU Health again seeking care from Dr. Einhorn.
“As much as this is my story, its Dr. Einhorn’s story,” said Kushneriuk. His relationship with Dr. Einhorn spans six years. “He has saved millions of lives with his research. He’d have every right to walk around with arrogance but he is so humble and loving and spends so much time making sure you understand everything. He wants to be sure that you leave his office with no questions. I was not aware of my body. I should have noticed something.”
At the age of five, Kushneriuk remembers climbing on top of a stool and looking through a tiny window in his Ottawa, Canada home. He was drawn to the view by a sound – hockey pucks clinking against the boards of the neighborhood ice rink. He eventually made his way onto the ice and mastered a sport that would become his career. He attended Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania where he was appointed captain of the Colonials’ Men’s Ice Hockey team and twice named the “Most Inspirational Player” for his team contributions.
Kushneriuk was 25 and had just completed his rookie season with the Bakersfield Condors when he was diagnosed with Stage IV testicular cancer that had metastasized to his liver and lymph nodes. He underwent surgery in Canada—a radical inguinal orchiectomy—followed by four rounds of chemotherapy. He was scheduled for another surgery on his liver, when his blood work caused his oncologist to reevaluate options.
“My oncologist didn’t seem hopeful. The outlook was not good,” said Kushneriuk. “I remember going home and at that point just being in disbelief and shock and super anxious. I tried to stay away from looking things up on Google but I decided to look up the best testicular cancer doctors and Dr. Einhorn’s name came up at the top of the page.” It was November of 2012 and by December, Kushneriuk was in Indianapolis.
“Dr. Einhorn is so fantastic, so caring and knowledgeable. From the onset he told me what to expect and gave me a clear picture of what the next two weeks would look like, said Kushneriuk. “Before I left, he looked me in the eye with a smile and said ‘we’ll get you back on the ice again.’ That really stuck with me, almost as if he knew that hope was exactly what I needed at the time.”
By January of 2013 Kushneriuk had completed his first round of high does chemotherapy treatments but his numbers were still not good.
“I remember thinking the next follow up would determine whether I live or die. I didn’t sleep the night before and I just prayed,” said Kushneriuk “I remember hearing Dr. Einhorn talking to his assistant when he came through the door and the way he was talking I could tell he was going to give me good news. Everything is clearer, more real, when you’re going through this and you learn to read him. He treats his patients like we are his own family. When he told me I was going to be OK, I broke down. He said, ‘after all the tears of pain and uncertainty, you’re overdue for some tears of happiness.’ Then he gave me one of his famous Dr. Einhorn hugs.”
Kushneriuk returned to Ottawa to prepare for the next phase of his treatment. His normal 200-pound frame had dropped 45 pounds. He hadn’t been on the ice or in the gym in months. For a guy who was referred to as “a high energy player” by his former Las Vegas Wranglers coach, Kushneriuk was worn down. Playing hockey took a backseat to his battle with cancer. He had been advised that even with a 50 percent chance at recovery there was a much lower probability he would return to the sport he loves.
In March of 2013 Kushneriuk returned to Indiana for an eight-hour surgery performed by Dr. Richard Foster and Dr. Michael House to remove a third of his liver, left kidney, and his gall bladder. “The recovery from that was crazy, said Kushneriuk. “They had me up and walking the first day and I remember the pain was unbearable. In four days I managed to fly back home. Right before I flew home, Dr. Einhorn told me things were looking good. And everything was sort of what they were expecting. He gave me the protocol for follow ups and sent me home with everything I needed to move forward.”
After a full recovery, Kushneriuk returned to the ice. He completed his final pro season with the Florida Everblades; based in Estero, Fla. where he was once named “Player of the Week,” after a game where he scored five goals along with one assist. He retired after the 2014-15 season and later framed his Everblades jersey as a gift to Dr. Einhorn.
Life got back to normal. Kushneriuk enjoyed hanging with his girlfriend Christiane Lalonde and his parents John and Lise. He also has an older brother Stefan. He started coaching junior hockey teams – youth 16-20 working toward NCAA scholarships.
Then it happened – something Kushneriuk calls a “mini bombshell.” His blood work indicated the cancer was back. He again reached out to Dr. Einhorn who ordered repeated scans that detected a tumor in his right lung.
“I was part of the less than one percent of people this happens too. I looked at my oncologist and asked ‘what do I do?’ and she said ‘we need to contact Dr. Einhorn,’ Part of Dr. Einhorn’s life work is looking at blood work. We knew at that point that there had been a recurrence, we didn’t know where it was,” said Kushneriuk. “After we determined it was in my right lung Dr. Einhorn reassured me again that everything would be alright,” said Kushneriuk, who turned 32 on December 24. “Dr. Einhorn described it in simplistic terms as ‘a couple of cells that were not washed away by the chemotherapy, hanging around, and for whatever reason have decided to start causing trouble.’ I trusted IU Health in 2012 so I returned in 2018 for surgery to remove the tumor.”
Under the care of Dr. Kenneth Kesler, Kushneriuk received a Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS). The minimally invasive technique involves inserting a small camera through an incision in the chest and surgically removing the tumor.
A year later, Kushneriuk said he feels great. “I just returned from a vacation to Florida with my girlfriend and I couldn’t feel better. “It took me about a month and a half to recover and then I got back in the gym and started lifting slowly. After about 10 weeks I was lifting normally and skating three or four times a week. It feels like it hardly happened.”
But along the way Kushneriuk has learned some important lessons that he wants to share.
“I noticed abnormalities in my testicle. I felt a dull ache in my back but I just thought it was from the wear and tear on my body – from rough play on the ice and long bus rides,” said Kushneriuk. “Looking back now I know the signs were there. You’ve got to check yourself and know your body. Sometimes that makes the difference in how quickly you can be cured.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email email@example.com.