Battling cancer and saving kids at the Waters Center

Pediatric oncologist William Waters MD (left, with bowtie) with colleagues. ND. Ten years ago, Upstate’s Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders was named in his honor.

William Waters MD (upper left, with bow tie) and colleagues, circa 1964. Ten years ago, Upstate’s Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders was named in his memory.

Richard Sills MD was a high school student in 1964, the year that Upstate’s hospitals opened. At that time, he laments, “almost nobody survived childhood cancer.”

The medical specialty of pediatric hematology-oncology was new in those days and William Waters MD, a 1942 graduate of the College of Medicine, was one of the first practitioners in the Syracuse area. Sadly, he died in 1966, at age 47.

Frank Oski MD, chairman of pediatrics, 1972 to 1985

Frank Oski MD, chairman of pediatrics, 1972 to 1985

Ten years later, Sills began a fellowship in pediatric hematology-oncology at Upstate, working under the direction of then-chairman Frank Oski MD, another pioneer in the field. Sills describes Oski as “an incredible teacher and role model for everyone who trained under him.”

In 2007, Sills returned to Upstate to direct the William Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders. The center serves a 21-county region and, last year, treated 454 children with cancer and blood disorders and had 617 patients enrolled in the survivor wellness program.

Thankfully, 70 percent of children with cancer today will survive their disease.

What has changed in the last 50 years to improve the survival rates so dramatically?

According to Sills, it’s the result of multiple improvements in medical care — the use of more effective, more intensive chemotherapy regiments as well as tremendous improvements in general medical care. Sometimes Sills and his staff use doses of chemotherapy five times greater than would have been used in the 1960s.

Richard Sills MD, chief of pediatric hematology-oncology

Richard Sills MD, chief of pediatric hematology-oncology

“A cancer diagnosis is completely different than what people think,” explains Sills. “Today, it’s an astounding success story.”

“Over the last 25 years, we’ve taken away much of the pain of procedures and reduced the nausea from chemo-therapy,” he continues. “Kids are not afraid to come to the hospital.”

The Waters Center is housed in both the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital and in the new Upstate Cancer Center. How do these facilities affect care?

“It’s much more patient- and family-friendly today. The environment is warm and happy for children, comfortable for families.”

The children’s hospital has individual patient rooms with sleeper chairs for family members, a family resource center, a classroom and play rooms. The new cancer center is nature-themed and has a playroom and specially designed areas for infants, children and teenagers.

“When I was first practicing, kids screamed when they had to go to the hospital,” says Sills. “Now, they cry when they have to leave because they’re  having fun and don’t want to go home.”

Zach Ellingson on the cover of the new Cancer Care magazine.

Zach Ellingson on the cover of the new Cancer Care magazine.

To “meet” one of the patients of Upstate’s Waters Center, read Cancer Care magazine’s story on  Zach, who was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, at age 8.


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Surgeon specializes in treating diabetics

palmashawPeople who have diabetes are at increased risk of lower leg amputation. The disease may diminish blood flow and sensation in their feet, and it may impair vision, so any wound is not readily apparent. Then because their immune system is compromised, their bodies struggle to fight any infection.

“If they don’t have good blood supply to their foot, you can give all of the antibiotics that you want, but the antibiotics go in the blood, and the blood can’t get to the foot. So therefore you have an untreated infection, and the patient can quickly lose the limb,” says Palma Shaw, MD, a vascular surgeon at Upstate University Hospital who specializes in limb salvage.

Tools at her disposal: improving blood flow through minimally invasive surgery, or through delicate open surgery in which veins are rerouted. If a wound has been festering for a month or more, she may have to surgically remove the wound or use an enzyme-based medication to stimulate healing.

More advanced options include hyperbaric oxygen and cell therapy.

Hopefully it never comes to that. Shaw urges people with diabetes to make regular visits to a podiatrist. She says monitoring foot health is as important as tracking sugar levels, blood pressure and kidney function.

Hear Dr. Shaw’s interview on this topic on HealthLink on Air

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Answers to questions about living with cancer

hafeez51silhQ: “I’m not depressed but I just want to be left alone, so what can I do about friends who keep trying to include me in their social plans?”

A: “The first thing would be to tell them,” advises Aliya Hafeez, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a breast cancer survivor.

“You will have two types of friends. One who will feel so uncomfortable with your diagnosis that they will avoid you. Do not take this personally as this is about them not you. However, you do have the right to tell them how it makes you feel.

“The second group will include those who will go out of their way to make certain you are OK and will invite you to everything and anything they can think of. Again they may be doing this to alleviate their own anxiety.

“It is OK to tell your friends exactly what you need. Make certain that you are getting a good share of love and support as that is crucial when going through the cancer experience.”

Reach Dr. Hafeez through Upstate Connect at 315-464-8668.

Listen to an interview with her on HealthLink on Air radio.

Read Upstate’s Cancer Care magazine.

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Ridlon wildflower painting hangs in hospital lobby

Artist Jim Ridlon with his work, "Goldenrod and Wild Asters." Photo by Rich Whelsky.

Artist Jim Ridlon with his work, “Goldenrod and Wild Asters.” Photo by Rich Whelsky.

Wildflowers adorn the lobby of Upstate University Hospital downtown, in a painting called “Goldenrod and Wild Asters.”

The painting is the largest from artist Jim Ridlon’s garden series. It consists of 30 9-by-12-inch painting he made over a year at fields between Cazenovia, the village where he resides, and New Woodstock, where he has a studio.

“I would go to the same spot at different times of the day to capture the color shifts and moods of the day,” he explains. “I can paint realistically. What I wanted was more of a feeling for what happened in that garden, from early morning to early evening.”

Drawn by the vibrant yellow of the goldenrod and contrasting purple of the wild asters, Ridlon later cut the small paintings and turned them into a giant collage.

As a child, Ridlon says he always enjoyed art; he was dyslexic and struggled with reading and writing. Today he is retired from the art faculty of Syracuse University, where he taught for 35 years. He played football for SU in the 1950s and then played professionally for eight years, for the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys.

Ridlon submitted his artwork for consideration to be included in the Upstate Cancer Center. The selection committee decided it would instead be perfect for the main wall in the hospital lobby. The painting’s white border matches the white of the wall, so that the painting appears to be floating.

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Which surgery provides best long-term outcome for kidney cancer?

Gennady Bratslavsky, MD, leads the Department of Urology.

Gennady Bratslavsky, MD, leads the department of urology.

Used to be, when surgery was recommended for kidney cancer, surgeons would remove an entire kidney. Now research shows patients fare better 10 years after surgery if the operation removes just the tumors.

It makes for a trickier operation, but the kidney-sparing surgery gives patients a decreased risk of developing chronic kidney disease, according to an Upstate study published recently in the journal, Urologic Oncology.

Urology resident Michael Daugherty, MD, and his mentor, Gennady Bratslavsky, MD, analyzed a national database, concentrating on people between the ages of 20 and 44 who underwent surgery for small, localized kidney tumors. “We looked at these younger patients because we wanted to see what effects the surgery itself would have on the patient and their long-term outcomes. With the younger patients, they were assumed to have less underlying diseases, less chance of having hypertension or heart disease or things that would possibly cause them to have an earlier death.”

They compared cancer-specific survival and overall survival between those who had their kidney removed and those who just had the tumors removed. They found no difference in cancer-specific survival, “which means the surgical removal got rid of the cancer in both ways equally,” he says. In overall survival, however, “those treated with the entire removal of the kidney did worse at 10 years. Those that had the nephron-sparing surgery did better in the long term.”

Not all kidney cancers are treated with surgery. Many factors including the type of cells involved help doctors decide what to recommend. “These cancers may be very different in their sizes, their behaviors and their prognoses,” says Bratslavsky, who leads the department of urology at Upstate.

Some kidney cancers are hereditary, passed from parents to children through a defective gene. Some are not. Some are discovered incidentally, when a patient has a medical image for another reason, and a tumor is revealed on a kidney. Many are discovered only after a patient notices blood in his or her urine.

“Unfortunately when patients present with symptoms, the disease may be much more advanced,” says Bratslavsky.

iStock_000017857727MediumUpstate physicians offer methods of destroying tumors without traditional surgery, and newer treatments that tap into the body’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells. “Active surveillance” is another important option when tumors that are slow growing or for patients for whom surgery would be too risky. Most of the surgeries for kidney cancer at Upstate are done laparoscopically, through tiny incisions, using robotic assistance.

No matter which type of cancer is diagnosed, Bratslavsky says, “it’s very important that patients with kidney tumors are managed in a setting where they can be provided with a multidisciplinary approach, such as at Upstate.” Radiologists, pathologists, medical oncologists, urologists and others come together in one room to discuss a particular patient’s options. This is where the question is asked, and answered: Which treatment, which surgery offers the patient the best outcome?

Read the study abstract in the journal, Urologic Oncology

Listen to the HealthLink on Air radio interview

Read Upstate’s Cancer Care publication


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Numbers help tell the story of the Upstate Cancer Center


17.4 million dollars were raised through the Foundation for Upstate — drawn from 18,449 gifts and pledges — to help build the $74 million Upstate Cancer Center.

preview140 villages, towns or cities in New York have residents who receive cancer care at Upstate University Hospital.

1 sky light in the healing garden lets natural light into the first floor of the George E. and Caryl Lee Johnson Radiation Oncology Center.

48 steps take you to the top of the Jim and Juli Boeheim Stairway of Hope from the cancer center lobby.

146 cassions secure the foundation, the deepest of which is 57.35 feet below the first floor.

Hear a radio interview about the new Upstate Cancer Center

Read the new Cancer Care publication

Sign up for a free subscription by sending your name and address to

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Plan now for ‘E-Race Cancer’ half marathon and 5K

A half marathon and 5K on Sept. 13 in Baldwinsville is designed to raise money for integrative medicine at the Upstate Cancer Center. It’s called “E-Race Cancer.”

The race is sponsored by RBC Wealth Management. The event will include a free 1-mile fun run, live music, food vendors and a mascot run. The races start and end at the Lysander Town Office Building. The 5K is $25, and the half marathon is $35. Register by Aug. 24 to be guaranteed a long-sleeve performance shirt.

“Our goal is to help people with cancer thrive and to promote wellness while caring for those with disease and illness,” says Kaushal Nanavati, MD. An assistant professor of family medicine, Nanavati is the medical director of integrative therapy at Upstate Medical University.



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Zach is ready to play ball again after cancer treatment

Zach Ellingson has monthly appointments with his oncologist, Karol Kerr, MD.

Zach Ellingson has monthly appointments with his oncologist, Karol Kerr, MD.

At the age of 8, Zach Ellingson had heard of cancer. It was a disease that other people got.

“Thinking about it now,” he says as a 12-year-old, “I know that I am ‘other people’ to other people.”

Zach is recovering from acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common type of cancer in childhood, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“He was a very, very sick boy for a while,” says his mother,  Jennifer DeWeerth, of Clinton.

She says that Zach started getting sick around spring break of second grade in 2010. He had one cold after another, and pink eye, and strep throat, and he was very tired. The family cancelled a weekend trip because Zach was feeling so bad. That weekend, he started vomiting dark blood.

His pediatrician ordered blood tests and quickly sent Zach to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. Doctors found that Zach had the second highest white blood cell count they had ever seen.

“I was terrified. I had no idea what was going on,” Zach recalls. “I knew something was up judging by their emotions and facial expressions.”

Karol Kerr, MD

Karol Kerr, MD

The first night in the pediatric intensive care unit, Richard Sills, MD, took care of Zach. Then Karol Kerr, MD, oversaw the youngster’s treatment, which included seven months of chemotherapy infusions, followed by radiation. After that, Zach took a chemotherapy pill daily for three and a half years. He missed almost half of third grade.

Today he’s a sixth grader who comes for blood tests and a checkup every month at Upstate.

Leukemia left Zach with a brain that does not work like it used to. He does not think as fast as before, and his short term memory is lacking, DeWeerth says of her son. He fatigues easily, but he is getting back into sports. He plays soccer, lacrosse and football.

previewZach says he was hospitalized for a couple months, but it felt like years. Sleeping in the hospital was difficult with the oxygen mask he wore at first. He missed his friends, and his parents and brother.

But the worst part? “Probably just the suspense,” he says. “I really didn’t know if I was going to make it or not.”

The nurses and doctors were nice, Zach says. “They really took good care of me. And, there was a Tim Horton’s.” He has fond memories of blueberry muffins his mom brought him from the café and bake shop.

DeWeerth says her son has recognized some positives that came from his experience. “He has been able to see how strong he is, and it has given him a sense of compassion for others.”

Learn about the preview of the Upstate Cancer Center

Listen to a radio interview about the Upstate Cancer Center

Read the new Cancer Care publication

Get a free subscription by sending your name and address to

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New publication shares mission of Upstate Cancer Center: Caring for patients, searching for cures, saving lives

cancercareWelcome to Cancer Care, the premiere issue of a quarterly publication dedicated to cancer patients, families and friends, caregivers, researchers, donors and everyone else touched by cancer.

This issue of Cancer Care heralds the opening of the Upstate Cancer Center, the Syracuse region’s most comprehensive resource for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. You will find a full array of outpatient services for children and adults offered under one roof, in a gleaming new building made possible in part through community donations.

We have the region’s only cancer program approved by the American College of Surgeon’ Commission on Cancer, achieving maximum commendation for the last 10 years. And, we are the region’s only provider for children previewwho have cancer. Upstate is proud to be part of the Children’s Oncology Group, an international network which provides the same treatments and recovery rates as high-profile national centers.

Our team of experts delivers personalized care, tailored to each individual patient, using a true multidisciplinary approach. Surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other specialists work together as part of a staff of 90 board-certified physicians, all of whom teach as professors in Upstate’s College of Medicine.

Our Cancer Research Institute is staffed with scientists who are dedicated to finding cures for cancer and translating laboratory discoveries to patient care.

Within the walls of the Upstate Cancer Center, you will find top-notch medical care, a variety of support services and many nice details (a healing garden, meditation room, family education center and such.) But most importantly, this is where you will find hope.

Learn about the preview taking place Saturday, July 19

Read the premiere issue of Cancer Care

Hear a radio interview about the Upstate Cancer Center

To subscribe to Cancer Care, send your name and address to

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New Vero machine targets tumors with precision

Vero_UZ_Brussels_newUpstate is one of only three institutions in the United States to offer the Vero, a 9-ton ring of sophisticated cancer weaponry that allows radiation oncologists to pinpoint tumors and deliver radiation with unprecedented precision.

Here’s how it works:

The patient lies on the treatment “couch.” After he or she is positioned, the Vero moves freely around the patient. With its unique pivoting head, the machine moves as necessary to provide unrestricted access to the tumor from nearly any angle.The advanced imaging technology built into the Vero shows a 3D view of tumors and organs. previewThe technology allows tumors — even those that move or shrink — to be located, targeted and then treated in real time.

The Vero can be used for many types of tumors and may be used on tumors that have spread and for those that are hard to reach surgically. Once the tumor is identified, the Vero’s precise delivery of radiation is achieved through several beams at different angles and intensities — all directed at the tumor. This means that radiation is concentrated on the tumor and less so on surrounding healthy cells and tissues. The customized treatment provides hope for greater cure rates and fewer side effects.

The Vero is housed in a specially constructed space in the new Upstate Cancer Center. Its addition complements existing technology to provide greatest breadth of treatment options in the region.

Learn about the preview of the Upstate Cancer Center

Hear a radio interview about the cancer center

Read the new publication, Cancer Care

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