If you ask Scott Stuart, he will tell you that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is not in the miracle business.
“I talk to a lot of people who are being treated at MSK,” he says. “When they go into remission or are cured, they call me up and say, ‘it’s a miracle.’ But my first thought,” he continues, “is that it’s not a miracle. It’s thanks to a lot of hard work, research, and dedication from scientists and doctors and nurses and many others.”
Scott is the Chair of MSK’s Boards of Trustees and Governing Trustees, and he calls his 15 years as an MSK board member “the highlight of my professional life.”
But his perspective is also deeply personal, formed as Scott and his wife, Lisa Stuart, supported their daughter Jessie, who underwent successful but grueling treatment at MSK for non-Hodgkin lymphoma when she was diagnosed at 12 years old.
Acutely aware that the science that saved Jessie’s life was made possible in part by the philanthropy of others, the Stuart family has made a transformational gift to launch the Lisa and Scott Stuart Center for Adolescent and Young Adult Cancers at MSK. The goal is to revolutionize cancer treatment for people ages 15 to 39 and to meet their very specific and often unmet needs.
“A Really Scary Word”
Jessie Stuart, now 29, vividly recalls learning that she had cancer. “We were on the ninth floor at MSK, sitting in the office of my doctor, Tanya Trippett, who specializes in pediatric blood cancers. I distinctly remember sitting in a plush chair. My dad was to my left, and Dr. Trippett and my mom were there, too.”
Her father broke the news. “My dad basically said, ‘Okay, this is a really scary word — you have cancer.’” As they did throughout Jessie’s treatment, her parents mixed hope with clear-eyed realism. “He said, ‘It’s going to be a crappy two years, but this is your support team, and we’re going to help you get through this,’” recalls Jessie.
A Source of Strength
Jessie underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, sometimes taking a dozen or more pills each day to deal with the cancer as well as the side effects from the treatment.
Lisa says MSK was a constant source of strength. “I know this sounds a bit crazy, but the ninth floor of MSK, which is the home of MSK Kids, can be a very happy, life-affirming place. There are kids running around, pushing their own IV poles, and a big playroom.” She continues, “People are respectful of each other’s privacy, but there’s a real sense of community.”
Dr. Trippett proved to be their rock. Lisa says, “Our family adores her.” Jessie calls Dr. Trippett “a life-changing person who is not only a brilliant scientist and doctor but was also basically a therapist for my entire family and got us emotionally through the experience.”
The Good with the Bad
During Jessie’s treatment, Scott and Lisa also took comfort in knowing their family had some good luck to balance out the bad.
Scott explains, “We knew that Jessie’s diagnosis had a high cure rate for people her age. And my brother Rob is an oncologist who started his career at MSK. He thinks very highly of the doctors there, and we think the world of Rob. That helped.”
Together, they considered how they could help other people facing cancer, especially people with far fewer resources than those they’ve been afforded by Scott’s successful career in investment and finance.
As Jessie regained her health, Scott and Lisa often thought about people facing cancer who had been dealt a tougher hand than their daughter. Scott still tears up remembering young people he and Lisa met who did not survive, including “this young guy who checked out of the hospital so he could marry his girlfriend — and died two weeks later. It was so heartbreaking.”
As usual with the Stuarts, their response was a family affair that included Jessie’s siblings — Daisy, Garratt, and Nate. Scott and his children have pedaled to raise money for rare cancer research as members of MSK’s Cycle for Survival. And Jessie ran two New York City marathons to raise funds for MSK as a member of Fred’s Team.
Paging Dr. Jessie Stuart
Jessie also fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a doctor, graduating from Harvard Medical School.
She is now applying for a fellowship in medical oncology/ hematology — nearly 20 years after she was cured of the kind of cancer she will now treat. She says, “I think in all my patient interactions, it adds just an extra bit of empathy and understanding to know what it’s like to go through such a harrowing experience.”
Lisa believes the Stuart Center will help patients and their families get through the most difficult time of their lives. “The research and new treatment protocols that the center will help produce will be more targeted,” she says. “And the support services for this age group are so promising.”
Scott picks up the thread, saying: “Think about being a teenage girl like Jessie, losing her hair for two years; or a 22-year-old starting his or her career; or a 32-year-old first-time mom. Each one of these age groups has its own challenges. A center that is focused just on this group of patients will do so much good.”
For all the Stuarts, this effort is not extraordinary or miraculous. Says Scott, “This is exactly what all of us at MSK are here trying to do.”