The “founding father” of St. Luke’s Cancer Center, Dr. Lee Riley is that rare blend of clinical expert and passionate care provider. His patients are his focus and fighting cancer is his life’s work.
When asked why he wanted to be a doctor, Lee Riley, MD cracks a smile and says, “I was supposed to be an astrophysicist.” Growing up in Houston at NASA with a mother who taught mathematics, Dr. Riley began devouring textbooks at a young age.
A life-long overachiever, Dr. Riley pursued his medical degree while simultaneously completing a PhD program at the University of Texas. It was during a research project, when he realized that you could essentially “immunize” mice against cancer that he found his life’s calling.
“I thought, if it works in mice, we can get this to work in people,” says Dr. Riley. Thus began a life-long passion for oncology and immunology.
Dr. Riley came to St. Luke’s in the early 90s, recruited away from Fox Chase by Charles Saunders, MD. “I liked the area and I liked the culture at St. Luke’s,” says Dr. Riley.
At the time, St. Luke’s only had one hospital, in Bethlehem. Fast forward 20+ years and St. Luke’s now has 10 hospitals, 300+ outpatient facilities and more than 15,000 employees.
As St. Luke’s grew, so did its cancer program. Dr. Riley recruited specialists in medical oncology, radiation oncology and surgical oncology. What started as one man on a mission, has grown into a team of more than 50 physicians and advanced practitioners. One of his recruits is internationally-renowned melanoma expert Sanjiv Agarwala, MD.
“Lee is and always has been focused on the patient,” states Dr. Agarwala. “That’s what St. Luke’s is all about – doing what is best for each of our patients.”
And what’s best often includes a collaborative, team approach.
“I love working with our team,” says Dr. Riley. He compares the synergy of an operating room to that of an orchestra – with each person playing their singular part, contributing to a greater whole. “From the surgeon to the scrub nurse to the anesthesiologist, everyone is working together.”
With the patient at the heart of his mission, Dr. Riley also worked feverishly to not only bring the best clinicians to St. Luke’s, but also the best and latest technologies. Through the years, he pioneered many “firsts” at St. Luke’s, including sentinel lymph node surgery and advanced genomic testing. In the 90s, Dr. Riley fought to bring melanoma drug IL-2 to St. Luke’s – at the time, it was only being offered at seven other locations in the nation.
“Patients here in the Valley are fortunate to have a multitude of clinical trials and therapies offered very close by,” states Dr. Riley. “For me, it has always been about the quality of the trials than the quantity. It’s about offering the right ones. And that’s what we do here – we go after the ‘game-changer’ trials.”
“And for those patients who need a specific trial that we may not offer, our doctors have the guts to send them where they need to be. We have access to all of the same trials anyone else does. We always provide our patients with the most promising trial option for them and their specific case – whether that’s here in the Valley or not.”
When asked about his relationship with his patients, it’s clear that Dr. Riley has a heart of gold. This is a man who, in his spare time, hand-crafted more than 600 glass pendants to handout to breast cancer survivors at the Women’s 5K Classic.
Chrissie Wagner, Dr. Riley’s patient, couldn’t agree more. “He instantly puts you at ease and makes you feel like family. His enthusiasm for his job and his confidence instantly instills trust. He is the best – I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”
“Being able to walk a patient through a difficult diagnosis and through the treatment process is something that I appreciate being able to do,” says Dr. Riley. “When you can turn a patient’s fear into hope – essentially helping them change their state of mind – it’s an amazing thing.”
“In Chrissie’s case, it was clear from the start that she had hope. And I believe that her positive outlook and determination certainly played a role in her positive outcome.”
Hope is something Dr. Riley carries with him in every aspect of his life. His recently developed passion for glass sculpting and jewelry making allows him to enjoy his life-long love of nature and science. Always learning, always curious, Dr. Riley finds beauty and meaning in the natural materials he works with.
“A stone, like tourmaline is a natural miracle. The right elements have to combine in exactly the right way at exactly the right time, against incredible odds. And yet, it happens every day. It’s the same with cancer. It is reasonable to expect that miracles can happen, because they do. Every day.”