Cancer patient discovers his talent through therapy

Sean McKinney is finding new ways to cope with his cancer diagnosis and treatment – through music and art.

As Sean McKinney strums on an electric guitar accompanied by IU Health Music Therapist Adam Perry, he talks about some personal discoveries.

First there was the diagnosis of testicular cancer. Then there was the unveiling of his creative side.

“I think I may have had one guitar lesson when I was young and I’ve dabbled in art but this has helped me pass the time and also think in a different way,” said McKinney, 23. Besides strumming a few chords on the electric guitar, he painted a birdhouse, and sketched a few drawings. One that he’s most proud of is a geometric background with a jewel as the focal point. He’s hoping to use the sketch as a logo for some educational materials about testicular cancer.

“We hear a lot about breast cancer and I want to create more awareness about testicular cancer and get guys to check themselves,” said McKinney, a resident of Tecumseh, MI. a town about an hour southwest of Detroit and four hours north of Indianapolis.

McKinney came to Indiana with his mom, Karen Lithgow. It was his mom who discovered IU Health oncologist Dr. Lawrence Einhorn through a social media group. Dr. Einhorn is known around the world for his successful treatment of germ cell tumors using a mix of high dose chemotherapies and peripheral stem cell transplant.

“When Sean was diagnosed I needed to know everything and I needed to know it yesterday. I sent his test results to Dr. Einhorn and he called on a Thursday and asked if we could be here the following Tuesday,” said Lithgow. Sean also has a sister, 21 and twin siblings, 18 back in Michigan. “We could have done this treatment in Michigan but traveled here to see Dr. Einhorn and chose IU Health because they perform so many stem cell treatments. We felt that although the treatment itself would be the same, his side effects would be best managed at IU Health where the staff had ‘seen everything,’” said Lithgow.  “We definitely made the right decision. Sean had an episode of AFib here, as well as some challenging moments during the second stem cell transplant. His nurses have been amazing at caring for him and getting him through these times.
“As a mother it’s a tough thing to watch, seeing your child go through chemo. Being at IU Health has helped me tremendously. I have so much confidence in Sean’s team and their concern for him has been very personal. That means so much to patients and really helps them mentally, which can be as important as the medicine itself.”

Lithgow said she’s seen Sean grow through his diagnosis and treatment.

“The art and music classes he’s had while inpatient have given him insight into some talents he never knew he had. He has met other patients like himself who have really helped.  He’s had spiritual support too. All of these things have brought something very positive to the otherwise negative event of cancer,” said Lithgow.

McKinney’s symptoms began with leg pain that he described as “sciatica” – back pain that shot down his leg.

“I was working in a production facility and I spent a lot of hours on my feet so I didn’t think much about it,” said McKinney. That was in March 2018. Three months later he was in Myrtle Beach with his girlfriend and the pain got worse.

“I was in the ocean and got knocked down by a wave and the pain got worse and continued the whole time I was there,” said McKinney. When he returned home, he went to urgent care thinking he had a bruised rib, but he ended up at the hospital. A CT scan showed an 11-centimeter tumor in his abdomen pushing on his vena cava – the primary vein that returns blood to the heart from the head, neck and upper limbs. Doctors initially thought he had lymphoma but further testing showed testicular cancer. Following an orchiectomy and nine weeks of chemotherapy, McKinney came to IU Health where he is in the care of Dr. Einhorn.

As he takes time to order two peanut butter sandwiches, McKinney talks about his progress toward healing.

“I feel great. I have an appetite and I think Dr. Einhorn is phenomenal. I was resistant to come here at first, but I’m glad I did,” said McKinney.

Back home, McKinney enjoys bowling and attended college on a bowling scholarship. He also likes to ride four-wheelers, hang out with his girlfriend, play with the family dog, and cut grass.

“After his first chemo treatment he was out walking around our pond and cutting grass,” said his mom. “He likes to keep busy and I think this whole experience has helped him slow down a little and discover his artistic talents. Sometimes you get so busy in life you don’t have time to explore things. While this has been horrible in so many ways, he’s also found the good and he’s had some great distractions through art and music.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email