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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.