At Work: Radiation Oncologist Oren Cahlon

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Memorial Sloan Kettering radiation oncologist Oren Cahlon with a patient.

Oren Cahlon uses multiple radiation techniques to treat people with breast cancer. His research focuses on ways to minimize long-term treatment effects on the heart.

Oren Cahlon is Vice Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and Associate Deputy Physician-in-Chief of the Regional Care Network. Dr. Cahlon also plays a central role in Memorial Sloan Kettering’s proton therapy efforts, which are poised to take a major step forward in 2019 as MSK, along with two other institutions, will open the New York Proton Center in Manhattan. We spoke with him in September 2018 about his career, the appeal of radiation oncology, and the promise of proton therapy.

Radiation oncology is a gratifying field. It gives me the opportunity to help people during a very challenging time in their life. It is rewarding to see immediate positive results and know that I have made a significant difference. As a radiation oncologist, I am able to combine caring for people with cancer with my love of physics and math to achieve the best results for my patients. It is such an exciting time to be involved in cancer care. The technologic and scientific breakthroughs are having a major impact on our ability to help people.

A Father’s Inspiration

I was born in Israel, and my family moved to Michigan when I was a toddler. My father had a one-year sabbatical leave as a math professor there. We ended up staying in Michigan. In those early years, I wasn’t thinking about becoming a doctor. I thought I’d follow in my dad’s footsteps. He is a pure academic, and I really enjoyed both math and science. As I got older, I came to realize that I wanted to have a more direct effect on people’s health and well-being, and I decided on becoming a doctor.

I wasn’t sure I would get accepted to medical school. I have to admit that I was not such a great student in high school. When I was growing up in Michigan, my family and I were often viewed as outsiders since we were not familiar with many American customs. My father was born in Libya into a fairly impoverished family. He was the first person in his family to learn how to read, not to mention graduate from high school or get an advanced degree. He taught me the importance of education and hard work. He was my real-life role model. He made me believe that if you are willing to work hard and commit yourself to your goals, then anything is possible. Over time I realized that education is what enabled my father to live a better life than he had grown up in. In college, I became very focused on my education and committed to attending medical school.

It's important to have the best technology and expertise, but there are a lot of little things you can do to make a difference in patients' daily lives.
Oren Cahlon Radiation Oncologist

There is limited exposure to radiation oncology during the first few years of medical school. But while I was a student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City, I met a prominent radiation oncologist, the father of one of my classmates. He always talked about his love for his practice and his patients. I was thoroughly intrigued, and after a one-month rotation in radiation oncology, I was certain that this was the correct field for me. I had the privilege to do a visiting radiation oncology rotation at Memorial Sloan Kettering during my fourth year of medical school and was blown away by the passion everyone had for their work. I wanted to be a part of the mission to fight cancer. I was honored to match at MSK for both my transitional year internship and residency training in radiation oncology.

While many aspects of radiation oncology are fascinating, my primary research focus is finding ways to reduce damage to the heart while treating people with breast cancer. We’ve gotten incredibly good at caring for women with this disease. Most of them live full, healthy lives. There are currently more than 3 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, as a result of increasingly better treatments. However, we have also learned that these treatments, such as radiation, while effective at fighting cancer, can sometimes result in harmful late effects, such as heart disease. Doing research to develop better, safer treatments is exciting and important to me.

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Proton Therapy: Pinpoint Treatment

One technology increasingly used to treat breast cancer is proton therapy. This sophisticated form of radiation targets a tumor with charged particles, called protons, rather than X-ray beams. Protons have unique physical properties that allow them to deliver a dose at a specific depth in the body. All of the energy is released when it reaches the tumor site, so there is no dose beyond that point. This lowers the impact to normal tissue.

Proton therapy is not a replacement for other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy. It is often not the best radiation option for a particular cancer. For some people, however, using proton therapy will make a significant difference. It might increase their chance of a cure or reduce their complications.

I began specializing in proton therapy soon after finishing my MSK residency in 2009. I joined Princeton Radiation Oncology and was involved with the early planning of ProCure, a proton facility in Somerset, New Jersey. I became Medical Director there in 2013. One of my goals as Medical Director was to make this unique technology available to patients at MSK and other institutions in the New York City area. In 2014, I returned to MSK as Director of Proton Therapy to help develop the proton therapy program at MSK.

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The Proton Therapy Facility of the Future

What Is Proton Therapy?
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In the past five years, MSK radiation oncologists have used proton therapy to treat more than 2,000 people with a range of cancers. We are among the most experienced specialists treating breast cancer with proton therapy. Our group has been at the forefront of refining techniques and developing guidelines for best practices.

In 2019, MSK will open a new state-of-the-art proton facility in Manhattan, in collaboration with Mount Sinai Health System and Montefiore Medical Center. The facility, the New York Proton Center, will make this cutting-edge treatment much more accessible to people in the metropolitan area. The MSK radiation oncologists who will practice there specialize in each type of cancer that can be treated effectively with proton therapy. This includes lung cancer, brain tumors, gastrointestinal tumors, lymphoma, sarcoma, head and neck cancers, and prostate cancer. I will be the primary breast cancer specialist at the new center.

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Staying Connected with Patients

As I’ve gotten older, I more and more appreciate the importance of taking care of our patients as if they are family. Like many others, my medical colleagues and I often have friends and family diagnosed with cancer. With every patient I see, I’m fully aware that tomorrow, I myself or someone close to me could be the next patient. I take great pride in knowing that if the time comes for us or our families, we would have the best place to go to for treatment: nowhere but to MSK.

I give every patient I treat my cell phone number and email address, and I try to be as accessible as possible. I’ve learned it is a great gift that I can give my patients. I am glad to be able to answer the simple, brief questions they may have: Can I eat this food? Can I be out in the sun? Can I go swimming? In just a few brief words, I can lift their spirits by being there in the moment with them and saying, “Yes, go to the beach and enjoy yourself.” It makes their weekend. It’s obviously important to have the best technology and expertise, but there are a lot of little things you can do to make a difference in patients’ daily lives. I look forward to these opportunities and have found that knowing I am just a text message away gives patients great comfort as they go through their difficult journey. I take pride and pleasure in being able to help them in this way.

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