Celebrating Survival

May 25, 2016
Robert J. McKenna, M.D.

Thoracic surgeon Dr. Robert McKenna Jr. aims for happy endings.

For patients suffering from lung cancer and emphysema, Robert McKenna Jr., MD, is a doctor in high demand. An internationally acclaimed thoracic surgeon and leading expert in the surgical treatment of lung cancer and emphysema, he recently moved his practice to Providence Saint John’s Health Center and the John Wayne Cancer Institute after 19 years at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“It’s very exciting—Saint John’s is a very good hospital,” he says. “I like how they take care of my patients, and they are bringing on exciting new experts in the research and treatment of cancer.”

Born in New York, Dr. McKenna was steeped in the medical profession since birth. “I went to my father’s graduation from Cornell Medical School when I was 12 days old,” he says, speaking of the late Robert McKenna Sr. MD, renowned surgical oncologist and former president of the American Cancer Society. “My mother was a neonatal intensive care nurse. When I met my wife, she was an intensive care unit nurse, and all three of our children either work in medicine or are in medical school.”

“People said, ‘You cannot do a good cancer operation that way.’ I would not have done it if I did not think we could." – Dr. Robert J. McKenna

Though he was born in New York, Dr. McKenna moved to Los Angeles as a young child, where he was raised in San Marino, near Pasadena. “Growing up in California, I had dreams of being either a rock star or a surgeon,” he says. “I always liked doing things with my hands. When I saw my first operation in high school, I really had no choice—what other field is there?”

At the core of Dr. McKenna’s expertise is a cutting-edge surgical technique called video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), a procedure he pioneered in 1992 and literally wrote the book, Atlas of Minimally Invasive Thoracic Surgery.

“In the past, lung surgery would require an eight- to 10-inch incision to open the chest cavity,” he explains. With VATS, there are small incisions through which the surgeon can place a small camera and surgical tools to remove parts of the lungs damaged by cancer or emphysema.

Performing surgery this way has many benefits for patients. A smaller incision means less pain, and with that, a reduced need for narcotic pain medication as well as significantly shorter recovery times. Some patients leave the hospital on the day after major lung surgery.

“I was the first to do VATS surgery for lung cancer in 1992. At the time people said, ‘You cannot do a good cancer operation that way,’” Dr. McKenna says. “I would not have done it if I did not think we could. I’ve now done more than 3,000 operations—more than anybody else in the world—and there is a huge amount of data that shows VATS is better for patients and some evidence that survival rates are better as well.”

But lifesaving surgery isn’t the only thing that keeps patients coming back to Dr. McKenna for years on end. It is also his no-nonsense yet easygoing manner and his commitment to keeping them cancer-free for the long run.
“People ask how I can stand to deal with lung cancer all the time,” he says. “My patients usually have early-stage cancer, and they are looking for surgery to save their lives.”

Screening for lung cancer is life-saving. After curative lung cancer surgery, patients may develop a new lung cancer. “Last week I operated upon a patient who developed a new tumor 22 years after the initial cancer,” Dr. McKenna says. “That was a brand new, unrelated cancer, but it was still early-stage because we found it with regular screenings.” Anyone who is over 55 years of age with a history of smoking one pack per day for 30 years should have a yearly screening CT scan.

Every November (Lung Cancer Awareness Month) Dr. McKenna and his wife, Kathy, who has worked alongside him as office manager since 1996, throw a Survivors’ Day party for their patients.

“We have about 200 patients come each year,” he says. “My patients really become friends, and we see the same people over and over again for many years.”

Along with treating a steady roster of patients, Dr. McKenna also spends a lot of time evangelizing the VATS technique and teaching the procedure to thoracic surgeons all over the world, from Brazil to Germany, which lets him indulge one of his few leisure pursuits—travel—amid a near nonstop work schedule.

“I love traveling, and I’m fortunate that I can combine travel and medicine,” he says. “Sadly, I do not have too much time to play my guitar anymore, but I am really proud of what I have been able to accomplish in my life so far and I am looking forward to developing a major chest surgery program at Saint John’s.”