News & Stories

Derek Helton, '96 M.D., F.A.C.P.

Medical Director, North County Cancer Services
UC San Diego Health System

Music and medicine require the ability to listen intently, as well as to balance between discipline and creativity. Dr. Derek Helton has significant talent in both areas.     
In high school, Helton spent a summer at Augustana University for a Lutheran summer music program and thought he might like to attend a small, preferably Lutheran, college. Later, attending a scholarship day at Cal Lutheran, he confirmed his choice. “I sat in on a microbiology class with Dr. Barbara Collins and that pulled me in—I was hooked.”
“I wanted to go into medicine, but wasn’t certain I would excel in the sciences. My professors were 100% supportive and boosted my confidence,” he remembers. “I was also involved in music and writing, and was the university pianist for Campus Ministry for my four years.”
Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid disease at age six, Dr. Helton spent a lot of time as a patient gaining firsthand perspective on the medical field. “It made me think that maybe one day I could be on other side of the exam room,” he said.
When he began practicing medicine, Dr. Helton developed very strong relationships with his cancer patients. “It was an extraordinary experience and I was drawn to them. The science is always advancing, which has led to much more personalized approaches. Twenty years ago, treatments were more boilerplate. Now, molecular profiling is a tool we use regularly.” Aside from treating patients, Dr. Helton engages with community groups, does charity care work and is an advocate on issues of access to healthcare.