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'You just move forward'

Posted: November 9, 2008 8:05 p.m.
Updated: November 10, 2008 4:59 a.m.

Erica McKenna, 14, gives her father, Joe a taste of the "Celebration of Life" cake before the official cake cutting at the 10th annual Cedars-Sinai Blood and Marrow Transplant survivors' luncheon on Oct. 26 as Myrna, Dr. Michael Lill, MD, the Cedars-Sinai oncologist who performed the couple's three marrow transplants, Alex McKenna, 11, and Jim, ...

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It started six years ago when Joe McKenna couldn't quench his thirst.

He thought a doctor's visit would lead to a diagnosis of diabetes, but a blood test found something else.

"At that point, I kind of knew something was going on," McKenna said with his wife, Myrna, sitting by his side.

The diagnosis was lymphoma, which led to a seven-round battle with chemotherapy.
McKenna, 42, remembered what his wife Myrna, 42, went through in 1994 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A successful bone marrow transplant led to her cure.

For his own battle, McKenna looked to encouragement from his doctors.

"If you're going to have lymphoma, that's the best kind," McKenna recalled at his home in Canyon Country. "It's treatable. It's curable."

He bounced back.

"Then three years later, I went for a routine scan and showed activity again," he said.

The treatment involved high-dose chemotherapy. With an 80 percent chance that McKenna would be cured, he also took part in a stem cell transplant.

It worked.

But like a cycle, just over a year ago, McKenna underwent a routine scan and once again, the cancer was back. This time he opted for a bone marrow transplant at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The donor was his brother, Jim, who lives two blocks away.

"My brother, turns out, was a perfect match," he said.

But the rounds of chemotherapy and procedures have taken a toll on McKenna, who understands that he might never feel 100 percent again.

But he and Myrna insist that they'll keep moving on, thanks to support from friends, family and faith.

The McKennas, who have been married for 17 years, credit their family as their support system.

"Of course family is number one," Myrna said as Joe added, "We're lucky. Really lucky."

Their experiences with cancer shed light on what's important in life, they agree.

"The things that are right in front of you become so much more important," he said.

But the two, who have a 14-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, enjoy active lives as Joe coaches football and baseball and Myrna teaches aerobics and cycling classes at a local gym.

Exercising is also beneficial for the body's immune system, she said, and added that "it's just something that's in you that you need."

McKenna recalled when his wife was battling cancer 15 years ago and they brought in an exercise bike during her time of treatment.

The McKennas also value each day.

"You just move forward and you try to live life as normal as you can," Myrna said.

Having a positive attitude kept the two strong.

"In my mind, I never ever thought I wasn't going to make it," he said.

Myrna said, "I had a six-month-old daughter at the time. It's like, ‘No, I want to see her grow up.'"

Dr. Michael Lill, director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, handled both Joe and Myrna's transplants. He believes the two were able to handle beating cancer "incredibly well."

Lill had his own battle with cancer in 2007.

"At least for me and at least for them, they had a very functional perspective on how to get through this," he said.

His experience lets him understand what cancer patients go through.

"I have much more of an understanding of the problems with dealing with uncertainty," he said.

As for advice to others, McKenna simplified it to three words: "Go get checked. We pay for medical coverage. Use it."


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