Compassionate Cancer Care

A world-renowned pioneer of brain and spinal radiosurgery—and director of Southampton’s new Phillips Family Cancer Center—makes patients his priority.
Photo by Alina Grubnyak

By Michele Shapiro

As a child growing up in Korea, Dr. Samuel Ryu found a small stick and started injecting it, like a syringe, into his mother’s arm. At least that’s the story that she relayed to him years later. Dr. Ryu, the deputy director for Clinical Affairs for the Stony Brook University Cancer Center and designated director of the Phillips Family Cancer Center in Southampton, remembers making the decision to pursue a career in medicine while in high school. “Caring for human life appeared to be quite fascinating, and I felt that developing things to help mankind would be rewarding,” he says. “I have a big heart for helping people.”

He attended medical school in Korea, which was “extremely competitive,” he recalls. It was there he discovered a love for research, realizing he could save more lives by creating new treatments for illnesses than by ministering to patients individually. “That’s why I came to the U.S.,” he says. “In the late ’80s, I dedicated myself to laboratory research for five years, and was able to publish.” When Dr. Ryu heard Richard Klausner, then the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), speak about the need for more clinical trials designed to improve health outcomes, Dr. Ryu decided to dedicate himself to improving cancer care: He was then, and remains today, all about the patient. “When I see patients, I see the entire person, not only cancer. And when I talk to med students and residents, I say, ‘See the person there.’” Dr. Ryu became known as an expert in the field of radiosurgery. While the technology has existed for 50 or 60 years, it was initially used to treat brain lesions. But after performing the procedure during the 1990s, “I thought, we can probably do this on the spinal cord because it’s so targeted. But with the spinal cord, there was the added risk of paralysis because, unlike the brain, the body has in-voluntary movement.” In the late ’90s, the technology was improving. By the year 2000, Dr, Ryu had successfully performed spinal radiosurgery on a cat, a mammal whose spines are much more flexible than those of humans. “I was convinced we could do it on humans,” says Dr. Ryu, “so we started the first clinical trial.” Twenty years later, radiosurgery of the spine is a routine procedure.

As cancer researchers have made headway, particularly with recent breakthroughs in immunotherapy for patients with solid tumors and blood cancers, Dr. Ryu’s priorities have shifted. “In the 1990s, the goal of cancer treatment was to make people survive. Now, the survival rate is better, so we’re focused on quality of life.” Dr. Ryu, specifically, has studied how to mitigate the physical impact of radiation. “If someone is tired from the cancer treatment, how can we make them feel less tired? What’s making them tired? If we know what that is, we can improve it.” Dr. Ryu admits that answers have been slow to materialize, but he’s made some progress. “A little bit of understanding adds a lot for quality of life,” he says. Since joining the Department of Radiation Oncology at Stony Brook University Hospital in April of 2014 as Department Chair, Dr. Ryu spends much of his time mentoring junior faculty members. He continues his research into the most aggressive brain tumor cancers, or glioblastomas, like those that claimed the lives of both Sen. John McCain and Joe Biden’s son, Beau. Dr. Ryu is developing clinical trials so that patients with glioblastomas can be treated at the Phillips Family Cancer Center in Southampton. “Usually, they can only receive such clinical trial treatment at larger university hospitals,” he says. “Treatments should be made easy for the patient to be treated closer to home with family.” 740 County Road 39A, Southampton, 631.638.7400, phillipsfamilycancercenter.stonybrookmedicine.ed