Realizing that the path he was on wasn’t the right one, Ron Chen made a life-changing decision as a college student that ultimately led him to his calling as a cancer physician and researcher.
Chen took a year off from the University of Kansas, where he had been studying chemical engineering, to volunteer full-time as a caregiver for terminal cancer patients. He lived in a two-story hospice care house with the patients and other volunteers. They cooked for the patients, bathed them, and kept them company in the last months of their lives.
“It was intense, and also life-changing,” Chen said. “It inspired me to want to go into a career where I could help cancer patients, and maybe even do research to try to improve conditions for them. That was 20 years ago, and I’m still on the same path.”
After a year of volunteering, Chen went back to finish college, and applied to medical school. He was accepted at Harvard Medical School, and then to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Now Chen, MD, MPH, is a physician-researcher at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology. He splits his time between research and clinical care as a radiation oncologist. He has a passion for research that can directly help his patients in the clinic, specifically focusing on comparing different treatments for prostate cancer on patient outcomes, and issues related to cancer survivorship.
Born in Taiwan, Chen moved to the United States when was 12. When he started school in the United States, he was enrolled in English as a Second Language classes. He also worked each week in the family restaurant alongside his parents. He had a natural ability in math and science, and that led him to chemical engineering in college. But he was also heavily involved in volunteering. And that work — in homeless shelters and in soup kitchens — led him to his experience in hospice care and medicine.
It was as a medical student at Harvard that he found his particular calling in prostate cancer research. Through a mentor-match program, he started working with a pioneer in the field of quality of life research. Now at UNC, Chen’s research focuses on studying the side effects and quality of life impact of cancer treatments. There’s a particular need for research focused on survivorship, Chen said, as many cancers now have high survival rates due to early detection and better treatments. But treatment can also result in side effects that impact patients’ long-term quality of life.
“I think part of the reason I’m drawn to prostate cancer research is that it’s a highly curable type of cancer, and because the majority of patients are cured, that shifts the focus to what happens after the cure,” Chen said.
I think part of the reason I’m drawn to prostate cancer research is that it’s a highly curable type of cancer, and because the majority of patients are cured, that shifts the focus to what happens after the cure.
There’s also a need for the type of work Chen does because of new treatment technologies, such as robot-assisted surgery for prostate cancer, that have emerged and continue to be developed. In 2012, he was senior author of a study published in JAMA that found no significant difference in prostate cancer patient outcomes between an expensive form of radiation treatment called proton therapy, and a more common type of radiation called intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) — except for an association between proton therapy and increased side effects in the gastrointestinal tract. While proton therapy has been touted as a more precise treatment, Chen’s study was one of the first to actually compare it against the more common IMRT in terms of prostate cancer patient outcomes.
“The issue is that patients are bombarded with messages about new things — robotic surgery or proton therapy — or whatever the latest technology is,” Chen said. “We need formal research to really compare these technologies head to head so we can tell patients which is best for them, and how the new treatments could affect their quality of life or cure rates.”
Chen is currently leading several studies that focus on prostate cancer survivors. A new study will soon be underway that focuses on the question of how often prostate cancer survivors should be monitored for recurrence, and whether the frequency of monitoring should be different based on the aggressiveness of the patient’s cancer and type of treatment he received. The study will be one of the first of its kind. He won a three-year, more than $1.7 million award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute for this work.
“This is a question that has the potential to affect millions of prostate cancer survivors,” he said.
In addition to his research and role in the clinic, Chen also values opportunities to teach and mentor students and residents. He has been the primary advisor for UNC medical students interested in pursuing radiation oncology, and now also serves as the program director for UNC’s Radiation Oncology Residency program. He has won several UNC and national awards for his roles as a teacher and mentor.
Outside of work, Chen enjoys traveling with his family in and around North Carolina. He’s a father of two, and each summer, he and his family try to go to a different beach. And each Thanksgiving, they try to see a different section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He’s in his sixth year at UNC and believes it’s an “incredible environment” for the research he’s doing, for junior faculty training, and for raising a family.