Grammy-winning songwriter and vocal producer Kuk Harrell
When prostate cancer comes calling, it doesn’t count how many Grammys you have sitting on your shelf. The most common cancer among American men after skin cancer, prostate cancer
affects approximately 175,000 each year. Prostate cancer will impact about 1 in 9 men in their lifetimes, and in 2018, it came calling for Kuk Harrell.
When it comes to the top talent working in pop and R&B today, few vocal producers are more accomplished or more sought-after than Harrell. His work with Mary J. Blige, Beyonce and Rhianna has earned him five Grammy awards, as well as nominations for songs performed by Katy Perry and written for the motion picture "Avatar."
Harrell has worked with the biggest names in music today, including Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Lionel Ritchie, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. He’s given notes to Kanye, collaborated with Cher and shared studio time with Kendrick Lamar. But his battle with prostate cancer could be his biggest challenge to date.
In 2018, a prostate-specific antigen test, or PSA, first revealed elevated levels that pointed to cancer. “When my general physician first told me that my numbers were concerning, I was shocked and scared,” said the 54-year-old Harrell. “During that first visit to the urologist, I was terrified. I just didn’t want to hear the diagnosis.”
Because of Harrell’s family history and the high rate of occurrence in African American men, doctors prepared Harrell for the worst: prostate cancer.
Cancer as an Opportunity
Harrell searched for ways to turn his fear into an opportunity to lead and inspire others. “The first person I told was my wife, followed by my manager,” he said. “They were freaked out, but by the time I started telling people the news, I realized that with all of the things that God has done in my life, I’m supposed to beat this. I’m supposed to be a miracle.” Harrell’s confidence transformed him from victim to counselor, as he used his diagnosis to encourage and reassure those around him, using his faith.
After consulting with medical teams in Florida and Georgia and undergoing a prostatectomy in Atlanta, Harrell became concerned that he would be “just another number, running through radiation treatment.” His manager and an associate urged him to seek further treatment at City of Hope, where the quality of care was immediately evident.
“My patient coordinator, Lupe Santana, met me at the front door, walked me through the facility, and made the process very clear,” Harrell said. He was treated by Tanya Dorff
, M.D., associate clinical professor, Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research
, and Savita Dandapani
, M.D., Ph.D, assistant professor, Department of Radiation Oncology
Harrell’s cancer was considered “locally advanced,” because it had spread outside of the prostate itself, but not outside of the pelvis, according to Dandapani. “Mr. Harrell was considered curable at diagnosis,” explained Dorff, “but unfortunately, his first surgical treatment failed. We didn’t see any signs of metastatic cancer, but his blood test revealed warning signs that there were still cancer cells remaining.”
This kind of cancer “upstaging” isn’t unusual, according to Dandapani, affecting somewhere between 20% to 30% of patients.
From their first meeting, Harrell placed all of his confidence in his care team. “Dr. Dorff really listened to me, and she allowed me to ask questions, and she made me feel really confident,” Harrell said. “I was confident in the fact that everything was going to be done in that one building, everyone would be talking to each other and she would be overseeing the whole thing. I knew that there would be no way that I would slip through the cracks.”
At City of Hope, the relatively small size of the team allows for comprehensive, state-of-the-art care by the same doctors throughout the course of treatment, according to Dandapani.
Following surgery to remove his prostate last year, followed by several weeks of radiation treatment, Harrell received hormone-replacement therapy injections to return his testosterone levels to normal. “On the medical oncology side,” explained Dorff, “we approach hormone therapy with lots of attention to mitigating side effects, and support for the patient as a whole person.
'I Felt Nothing But Hope.'
“At City of Hope, I really feel like they care,” said Harrell. For him, the name of the hospital felt well-suited to the care he received. “Throughout the process, I felt nothing but hope. I knew that I could access any of the care I needed, or any of my test results, at any time of the day and be taken care of. It made me feel at peace the entire time.”
While Harrell described his cancer journey as “a wilderness,” he also explained that it could be “a paradise.”
“My seven-week radiation treatment was the best season of my life. I learned so much about myself. It gave me an opportunity not just to witness to others, but to see that life can hand you challenging moments and still allow you to find peace. I want the staff at City of Hope, anyone that’s touched this body, to know how amazing and incredible they are.”
Today, Harrell’s PSA test is showing that he has “achieved an excellent remission,” according to Dorff, with cancer indicator levels that are “undetectable.” He will undergo several more weeks of hormone-replacement therapy, and then be checked again in six months after his testosterone levels return to normal to ensure the hormonal recovery doesn’t correlate with a rise in PSA levels. At this point, Harrell’s doctors are “very encouraged” by his progress, as his numbers “are moving in the right direction.”
“I’m still here, and I’m not checking out,” Harrell said. “Let’s ride this thing until the wheels fall off.”