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‘It’s surreal’ says oncology surgeon of his own testicular cancer diagnosis

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

‘It’s surreal’ says oncology surgeon of his own testicular cancer diagnosis

Dr. Sean Kern completed his oncology fellowship with IU Health and last year, was treated for testicular cancer by one his mentors, IU Health’s Dr. Lawrence Einhorn

By IU Health Senior Journalist, TJ Banes,

He can’t stress it enough: “Check yourself.” In casual conversation, Dr. Sean Kern tells his male friends, to make sure there are no lumps or bumps. With his patients, Kern tells them it’s their chance to spread the word about testicular cancer.

Kern says he was “fortunate” to train in oncology under IU Health’s Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, known for successful treatment of testicular cancer - germ cell tumors - using a mix of high dose chemotherapies and peripheral stem cell transplant. Patients have traveled from throughout the country and the world for his specialized care.

During “Testicular Cancer Awareness Month,” Kern shares his personal story about diagnosis and treatment of testicular cancer.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, urology surgeon and founding director of the TESTIS Program at the Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Kern could have gone anywhere for his cancer treatment. He chose IU Health.

Professionally, Kern’s direction of the Testicular Cancer Enterprise for Survivorship, Treatment, and Investigational Sciences (TESTIS) Program, is dedicated to various areas of testicular cancer. Those areas include: A patient database for outcomes follow-up, mental health and fertility counseling, and investigative research aimed at minimizing the negative side effects of cancer treatments.

Personally, he discovered his own diagnosis on Easter 2023 during a routine exam.

“I found a lump on my right testicle. I wanted to be treated by my mentors and be treated in a place where I don’t work,” said Kern. “It was surreal to believe at first.” After surgery and tests confirmed his diagnosis of testicular cancer, Kern hopped on a plane and came to Indianapolis where he was in the care of Dr. Einhorn.

Testicular cancer occurs in the testicles (testes), located in the scrotum. It is rare but the most common cancer in American males between the ages of 15 and 35. Symptoms may include a lump in the testicle, a feeling of heaviness in the scrotum, dull ache in the abdomen or groin, and back pain.

At IU Health Simon Cancer Center, Kern completed three, 21-day cycles of chemotherapy. His treatments ended on July 10, 2023, and three months later he attended the Testicular Cancer Conference at IU School of Medicine. He was reconnected with Dr. Einhorn, along with IU Health urologists Dr. Clint Cary, Dr. Timothy Masterson and Dr. Aditya Bagrodia with UC San Diego.

Dr. Sean Kern testicular cancer

“My hair had grown back and I had two cuts when I attended the conference,” said Kern, who is married to Aneta, and the father of two children. In March, Kern and his wife snapped a photo after they learned his most recent scans and markers were negative for cancer.

Dr. Sean Kern testicular cancer

“IU Health is next to none the best in the world. I was very fortunate to do my oncology training in Indiana and even more fortunate to have Dr. Einhorn as my mentor and doctor,” said Kern. “He really shapes how I look at the disease and how I treat patients, and research the disease.”

As part of his treatment and recovery Kern took part in IU Health’s “Multidisciplinary Oncologic Vitality and Exercise” (MOVE), program created by Dr. Tarah Ballinger. The program brings together a group of like-minded healthcare professionals from various disciplines. The goal is to offer supportive oncology services as part of every patient’s journey through survivorship. Physical therapy is one of those services. Kern also received hand massage therapy from IU Health Simon Cancer Center’s certified massage therapist, Michelle Bailey.

“As a surgeon, I was concerned about peripheral neuropathy, a side effect associated with chemotherapy that can cause numbness of the fingers,” said Kern. “The need to treat the disease in a multidisciplinary fashion is an important model - collaborating with practitioners involved in both physical, mental, and behavioral health.”

Through his diagnosis and treatment Kern has adopted many of the practices in his own patient care.

“I think I have always been good at counseling my patients and giving them expectations and a road map to their care but my experience has led me to focus on the caregiver as well,” said Kern. “I don’t think I was doing it that much before. When you’re explaining cancer or surgery to someone over half of the conversation isn’t grasped by the patient but the caregiver is there. It’s so important to make sure they get the support for coping,” said Kern. “With testicular cancer you’re a part of a fraternity that no one wants to be in and there’s a bond I have with my patients in a different way. Everyone has their own cancer story but patients tell me their story and they tell me as a doctor who understands the scans, the tumor markers and the anxiety.”

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