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Sean Kern, MD, an IU-trained urologic oncologist and founding director of the military’s testicular cancer enterprise, was diagnosed with the very disease he specializes in curing. He joined IU School of Medicine experts at a recent testicular cancer conference as an inspirational speaker, medical expert and survivor.

Urologic oncologist turns to IU mentors for his own testicular cancer treatment

Sean Kern speaking, seated with other testicular cancer experts

Dr. Sean Kern speaks at the 2023 Testicular Cancer Conference at IU School of Medicine.

Sean Kern, MD, is an Indiana University-trained urologic oncologist, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, founding director of the military’s testicular cancer enterprise, and now, a testicular cancer survivor himself. That placed him in a unique position as the only participant at a recent testicular cancer conference, hosted by IU School of Medicine, who was both a medical expert panelist and a member of the survivors’ support group.

“I was the person with the most recently diagnosed cancer at the conference,” said Kern, who completed his fellowship in urologic oncology at IU School of Medicine in 2021.

In April 2023, he was diagnosed with the very disease he specializes in curing. He returned to IU to be treated by his mentors.

“I’m probably the only urologic oncologist in the world who has testicular cancer,” said Kern, one of the military’s top experts in the field. “It was really weird to be on the other side of the conversation.”

Kern and several other medical professionals spoke at the 2023 Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation (TCAF) conference, including IU Distinguished Professor Lawrence Einhorn, MD, who, in 1974, added an experimental drug to the chemotherapy regimen that quickly changed a testicular cancer diagnosis from a probable death sentence into a highly survivable disease, even at advanced stages.

Dr. Einhorn speaks at the 2023 Testicular Cancer ConferenceSince that time, Einhorn has been working to refine the cure, aiming to reduce the treatment’s side effects.

“We not only need to cure patients, but we need to look at the burden of the cure, both during therapy and after completion of therapy,” Einhorn said at the conference.

Before his discovery of platinum-based chemotherapy, patients with metastatic testicular cancer had a mere 5% survival rate. Today, those patients have an 80% survival rate, and the overall testicular cancer survival rate is 95%.

Early on, Einhorn collaborated with John P. Donohue, MD, who developed a surgical procedure that brought testicular cancer patients from around the nation to Indianapolis for treatment. Later, the Einhorn-Donahue duo was joined by Richard Foster, MD, professor emeritus of urology, recognized as a world leader in the surgical management of testicular cancer.

Dr. Clint Cary speaks during a Q&A with medical experts, alongside Geo Espinosa, Sean Kern and Timothy Masterson. Today, IU’s testicular cancer experts include Clint Cary, MD, MPH, and Timothy Masterson, MD, both members of the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center. Along with Kern, they were among medical professionals from several institutions who participated in a “Meet the Experts” panel, including cancer center members Nabil Adra, MD, MS, and Shelley Johns, PsyD.

“We have been providing surgical care for this disease for the past 60 years and have the world’s largest surgical experience in the complex management of advanced testicular cancer,” said Cary, who organized the conference at IU School of Medicine. “Our group pioneered many aspects of surgery including nerve-sparing techniques and surgical templates to minimize morbidity. In addition, our medical oncology colleagues, namely Lawrence Einhorn, helped revolutionize care with the introduction of platinum-based chemotherapy.

“Together, our collective group has revolutionized the cure rate of metastatic testicular cancer.”


A ‘surreal’ diagnosis

Because of IU’s reputation for successful outcomes, people come from all over the nation and world for testicular cancer care. No one expected Kern to be among them.

“It was a little surreal and hard to believe at first,” Cary said of the news that their former chief urology fellow was returning as a patient.

A year prior to his diagnosis, Kern founded the Testicular cancer Enterprise for Survivorship, Treatment, and Investigational Sciences (TESTIS) at the Murtha Cancer Center at the Uniformed Services University and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. TESTIS includes 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.

“Everything IU is doing in testicular cancer, we are building for the military,” Kern said.

Massage therapist Michelle Bailey works on Sean Kern's hands to prevent neuropathy.At the time he launched the TESTIS program, he had no inkling he would soon be sitting on the other side of an exam room door.

“I was really surprised when I felt a mass,” he said, recalling the moment he discovered a lump while performing a routine self-exam on Easter evening. “I knew right away—I knew it was almost a guarantee it was cancer.”

After surgery and tests confirming the diagnosis, Kern was on a plane to Indianapolis. Einhorn, his revered mentor, was now his cancer doctor.

There was no question Kern wanted to be treated at IU.

“These are the experts,” he said. “Not only are they good at treatment, but they’re also good at managing the side effects.”

At IU Health, Kern discovered additional resources to support his recovery. As a surgeon, he was especially concerned about peripheral neuropathy, a side effect often associated with chemotherapy, that could cause numbness in his fingers. He welcomed oncology massage, offered by massage therapist Michelle Bailey, and took advantage of an exercise therapy program developed by Tarah Ballinger, MD, offered free to patients at the cancer center.

Sean and Aneta Kern speak at the 2023 Testicular Cancer ConferenceNow in remission and back on the job as the director of urologic oncology at Walter Reed, Kern said his experiences give him a new level of empathy for his patients.

“My current anxiety is fear of recurrence—they call it scan anxiety,” Kern said.

He and his wife, Aneta, a clinical psychologist, both spoke at the conference as experts and inspirational speakers, relating to survivors and caregivers in a way that only comes from lived experience.

“Sean’s story showcases the power of having a support system in place, but also the need to surrender to the process after diagnosis, knowing that living through this isn’t the same as treating the disease,” said TCAF Founder and CEO Kim Jones, whose own caregiver journey with son, Jordan, was the impetus for the foundation.

Q&A session with medical experts, groups sitting in a circleTCAF aims to raise awareness and education about the most common form of cancer in men ages 15-44 and to provide lifesaving support for patients, survivors and caregivers. The annual conference offers a safe space for patients and caregivers to ask their questions directly to some of the nation’s top medical professionals.

Kern is now a board member for the foundation, using his unique perspective to help guide TCAF’s support programs. He is grateful to his mentors at IU for not only their expertise but their compassionate care during his own treatment journey.

At the conference, Jones presented Einhorn with a plaque recognizing IU Simon Cancer Center as a TCAF Testicular Cancer Center of Excellence. Watch Einhorn’s address at the Testicular Cancer Conference highlighting IU School of Medicine’s significant history in improving outcomes for testicular cancer.


Group photo of Testicular Cancer Conference attendees in front of the Ruth Lilly Learning Center sign

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Laura Gates

Laura is senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications and loves to tell the stories of outstanding students, faculty and staff at IU School of Medicine. A native Hoosier, she has over 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.