A Conversation With Dr. Samuel Ryu

Samuel Ryu, MD, addresses the crowd from the podium during the Stony Brook Southampton Phillips Family Cancer Treatment Center grand opening on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Michael Heller photo

A new era in treatment options for East End residents battling cancer begins this month with the opening of the new Phillips Family Cancer Center in Southampton. The state-of-the-art facility is a partnership between the Stony Brook University Cancer Center and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, and gives cancer patients on eastern Long Island access to quality care, clinical trials, and all the expertise of the Stony Brook University Medical Center in their own community. Overseeing the center is Dr. Samuel Ryu. Dr. Ryu has been practicing medicine for nearly 40 years, and has become earned a reputation as one of the top cancer doctors in the country. Dr. Ryu has been with the Department of Radiation Oncology at Stony Brook University Hospital since April of 2014, serving as Department Chair, while also serving as Deputy Director of Clinical Affairs for the Stony Brook University Cancer Center.

He is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of radiosurgery, developing new methods for treating cancers of the head and neck as well as introducing methods for delivering that same type of treatment for other cancers as well, and he has also been at the forefront of developing ways to minimize the side effects of such treatments. Dr. Ryu was one of the featured speakers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the center on April 25, where he spoke about his desire to bring “Ritz-Carlton” style service to cancer patients at the new center. He took time earlier this week to go into more detail about his vision for the center, why he thinks it can be a model for other communities working to provide the best cancer care, and what he hopes the center can be in years to come.

Describe what your role is at the Phillips Center, and talk about some of the primary goals for the center, especially in the first few months.

Dr. Samuel Ryu: My primary goal is to let everyone know [about the center] to attract patients here. Getting the word out is important. In terms of medical care, we will provide the oncologists from Stony Brook here at this facility. I’m sure there will only be a few patients initially, but that will increase. I already have questionnaires from other referring doctors who want to know how they can send patients there. I also want to make sure everything is happening the way I want it to. That we’re providing superior care and also making sure all the quality assurances are happening. There is zero tolerance for errors.

I would like to provide what I say is Ritz-Carlton type of cancer care and treatment. It’s a very cozy and private environment there, and all the staff are very well trained. I’m going to make sure this week and next week that everyone is treating the patients equally and in very high regard. And I will try to be there as often as I can; for the first few months, at least once a week, if not more. And as time goes by, we will be introducing clinical trials over there.

Why do you think having a state-of-the-art facility like this in a community setting is so important? I think a lot of people have an association in their mind that for the best cancer care, and maybe even for the best chance of survival and beating cancer, you have to be further up the island or in the city. So what does it mean to have a center like this, with the latest technology and in sync with the university with access to clinical trials?

Dr. Ryu: I’m very much unhappy with that notion, and it’s very much a misunderstanding. Twenty or thirty years ago, that might have been true, but now I would say that 99 percent of cancer care is performed on an outpatient basis, so you don’t really have to go [to large hospitals in or near the city]. That notion should be broken, and everybody should understand that cancer care can be done in the local area. With that in mind, I have also been proposing regionalization of cancer care. Cancer patients traveling two or three hours one way is not really appealing. They are fatigued and have difficulty coping with cancer and their environment. So having a top notch facility just like this one in the local area is extremely important.

Question: You’ve been practicing medicine for almost 40 years. Tell me why you wanted to go into this field in particular, not only treating cancer but staying in the academic realm of research and teaching.

Dr. Ryu: My initial interest was research in cancer biology. By understanding the cancer and how it behaves and how it spreads, you can probably provide or find out an innovative treatment. I can see whatever number of patients in my lifetime, but if I can make a new treatment, and train a lot of people, I can probably treat more than 100 or 1,000 times the number of people I could treat on my own. My contributions have been in two main areas: radiosurgery existed initially only in the brain, but now it’s being applied to not only the brain in more sophisticated ways, but we’re also expanding to the head and neck and spinal cord, and it’s now quite commonly used for the lungs, liver and other cancers. I became a pioneer of that treatment. The other area is how we can minimize the cancer treatment related to complications from the treatment. How can we make the patients undergo more easily all the existing cancer treatments?

Q: You’re a doctor and treating cancer is obviously the main goal, but it seems like the Phillips Center has also put a lot of emphasis on the patient experience and making sure patients and their families have the emotional support they need. Tell me why it’s so important, even for doctors, not to lose sight of what cancer patients are dealing with at the human level.

Dr. Ryu: Conventional treatment areas are all like hospitals. This is actually my second experience of making such a beautiful cancer facility. I moved from Michigan five years ago, and before I came here, we did a similar thing there. My philosophy was to make the cancer treatment facility like a hotel. You go to a hotel to feel good and relax. Can we make that happen in a cancer facility? Of course, this isn’t a hotel. But making the patient comfortable in the environment is very important. Cancer patients usually come in with family members who are very much anxious and wanting to know what’s happening, and they want to sit down together. Accommodating all of those things is very important.

Q: What do you envision will be the reputation of the center over the next few years? What do you hope it becomes?

Dr. Ryu: Everyone in the east end area will feel that they will just come here. This will be their cancer destination. I also want to share it with as many people as possible, would like to develop what I would call a medical cancer product or program, and what I mean by that is that Southampton is, for a lot of people, a vacation destination; so they could come here on vacation, get their cancer treatment, and then go home, and come back for their follow-up. So I’m looking into that too.