For the media

An accidental — but lifesaving — discovery

By The Health News Team | September 28, 2023
John McKee of San Diego

Prostate cancer survivor John McKee picked Sharp Grossmont Hospital for its cutting-edge technology.

Late last year, John McKee, age 53, discovered he had prostate cancer — by accident. While living in Colorado, he and his wife, Kelly, were applying to adopt a child, and regular health screenings were part of the process.

“I was going back to the doctor pretty frequently to keep my records up to date,” says John. “We took blood tests, and the doctor noticed my PSA level was high.”

PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, is a protein found in the blood. A high level could indicate prostate cancer, although other conditions could also elevate PSA.

“My doctor asked me to come back to take another test,” John says. “It was even higher.”

That’s when a biopsy was ordered. The result: positive for prostate cancer.

New home, job and care team

At the time, John and his wife were relocating from Colorado to California. He had accepted a position at California Western School of Law in downtown San Diego, and his new job started in January 2023.

“I wanted to do something about my cancer and not wait too long,” John says. But with the pending move, it made sense for John to find care in San Diego.

“When I left Colorado and came to California, I had no doctors or insurance set up yet,” John says. “I needed to transition my health care from Colorado, where I found out I had cancer, and transfer all that information here.”

Advanced cancer care at Sharp

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men — 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed during their lifetime. In many instances, it grows slowly, and treatment might not be needed right away.

Some doctors recommend “active surveillance” to closely monitor the cancer with blood tests and other exams. But for individuals with an aggressive cancer, surgery or radiation therapy may be needed.

Once settled into San Diego, John selected the David & Donna Long Cancer Center at Sharp Grossmont Hospital for his cancer care. He had learned Sharp Grossmont offered one of the most advanced cancer-fighting technology systems for radiation therapy, the Accuray Radixact.

The cancer center was also close to his new home in East County and an easy stop on his way to and from work.

John was treated by Dr. Barry Uhl, a board-certified radiation oncologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont. According to Dr. Uhl, the two most important factors for prostate cancer are the PSA and the Gleason score.

“The PSA is a blood test that can indicate an increased risk of cancer if it is elevated,” Dr. Uhl says. “The Gleason score is given by the pathologist after looking at the biopsy of the prostate under the microscope. The higher the score, the more aggressive the cancer.”

Dr. Uhl says John’s score was 3+4, or 7 out of 10, which is considered intermediate risk. John was eager to start treatment given that his cancer was fairly aggressive. He had already delayed care, and besides his physical health, his emotional wellbeing — or what he referred to as “getting into the right frame of mind to beat this” — was weighing heavily on him.

“I had no symptoms whatsoever,” John says. “I feel very lucky because I found out early. So many men don’t. I just happened to be getting these tests done. I picked Sharp for their technology and felt like I was in very good hands.”

A treatment plan in place

John’s treatment plan included hormone therapy as well as radiation therapy using the Accuray Radixact, which delivers precise radiation while sparing healthy tissue. Prior to that, John received Lupron, a hormonal treatment that decreases testosterone production in the body.

“Prostate cancer feeds off testosterone — it gives it a signal to grow and thrive,” says Dr. Uhl. “Lupron is an injection that’s given periodically but wears off over time. More aggressive prostate cancers are treated with radiation therapy in addition to hormone therapy.”

The hormone therapy significantly reduced the size of John’s tumor. But it was not without side effects, including hot flashes and night sweats, which are common until the medication gradually wears off.

“The hot flashes have been annoying but not debilitating where I could not go about my life as usual,” John says. “I joke that I feel like I’m sweating my cancer away.”

Radiation began in May with 28 weekday treatments lasting through early July. He continued working by scheduling early morning appointments.

John maintained his good sense of humor throughout. He jokes that treatment at the Long Cancer Center was like going to an unconventional spa.

“It was kind of like going to a spa in the morning,” John says. “I laid down, I had a little pillow, and they measured me up — it’s very precise,” he says. “Everyone was so kind. We talked, and I got to know them. When treatment was over, I was happy, but I knew I’d miss everyone.”

John’s most recent PSA test was normal. However, his hormone therapy may still be having lingering effects, reducing his PSA. He’ll have follow-up PSA testing to ensure there’s no evidence of disease going forward.

Feeling fortunate for care and support

During his treatment, Dr. Uhl met with John once a week, and John looked forward to talking with him. “We met every Tuesday,” he says. “We chatted about my cancer, then we’d talk about me. It was more like talking to a friend. He put me at ease and was easy to talk to.”

Dr. Uhl says it’s important to treat cancer patients as normally as possible. “People aren't defined by a diagnosis of cancer,” he says. “I find that it’s a privilege to help someone through such a trying time.”

Outside of clinical care, his wife Kelly, family and friends were a deep source of support that he needed. But John says he also received unexpected support from his “work family,” which kept him positive and helped get him through the rough patches.

“Every day, what helped me get through this was my staff at California Western,” John says. “On the days I had treatment, they gave me a little sheet of paper with an inspirational quote to help keep me going and to let me know they were thinking of me. They displayed them in my office, printing them on beautiful, soothing background art — it was so intentional and thoughtful.”

Such support from his colleagues, John says, was more than he expected, especially since he was new. “It was relentlessly positive,” he says.

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