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Headshot of Jacob Stein
UNC Lineberger’s Jake Stein, MD.

The UNC Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program, part of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Support program, announced Jake Stein, MD, MPH, as the inaugural AYA Oncology Liaison. Stein is a medical oncologist with a clinical focus on caring for patients with sarcomas.

In the seven-year history of the AYA Program, the group routinely received the support, advocacy, engagement and guidance of many physician champions who will continue to serve in this capacity.

The influence of these champions and the central roles they have played in the growth of the program have led to the creation of this new role.

As the AYA Oncology Liaison, Stein will:

  1. Provide care for young adult sarcoma patients and help lead the AYA Sarcoma-Palliative Care Initiative
  2. Use outcomes research expertise to study the effects of the UNC AYA Program
  3. Serve as an AYA resource and represent AYA program priorities within the Division of Oncology
  4. Advise on AYA quality improvement efforts

We asked Stein a few questions about his new role:

Why did you decide to pursue this role with the AYA program?

As a sarcoma oncologist, many of the diseases I treat commonly affect young folks, such as Ewing sarcoma, osteosarcoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, among others.

The needs of our young patients are really different than what we’re used to managing in the cancer center – scheduling chemotherapy around class schedules, new jobs, or parenting responsibilities, managing concerns about fertility, and navigating the uncertainty of a serious cancer diagnosis while establishing an identity as an adult.

I have already learned so much from my young patients and from our excellent AYA team here at UNC and I want to contribute to improving care for young folks with cancer, whether with sarcoma or another cancer, throughout the UNC system. This role is a great opportunity for me to do that.

Why is serving this patient population important to you as a clinician and researcher?

I’ve always been drawn to caring for patients that the system doesn’t traditionally serve well. The sad reality is that the modern cancer care delivery systems don’t account for AYAs particularly well, and their needs often go unmet. I see this as a great opportunity and privilege to help provide these folks with the care they need, and also to study ways we can make the health care system work better for young people with cancer.

I also just love taking care of young people. While every patient is different, I find that young people ask the best questions, don’t take anything for granted, and challenge our medical system to adapt. They often want to fit cancer treatment into their busy and full lives, rather than the other way around. I love that, and I enjoy the creativity and flexibility it takes to deliver cancer care that works for them.

Can you talk about your plans for this role?

I’ve already hit the ground running with Lauren Lux, Andrew Smitherman and our whole outstanding AYA group. One of my first goals is to help measure the impact of the AYA program on care.

We know intuitively that the team has been filling gaps in care and improving the experience for our young folks with cancer across UNC Lineberger, but we want to better quantify what we’re doing well and where we need to focus next.

My background as a health services researcher has been a nice fit with the numerous skill sets that our program already boasts. I also look forward to collaborating with colleagues in other disease groups in adult oncology to ensure that we are caring well for these patients across a wide range of settings.

What does it mean to you to be selected as the first physician liaison for the AYA program?

It’s a huge honor. One of the things we know is critical to caring for AYAs in the right way is to have robust collaboration between pediatric and adult oncology.

Dr. Smitherman brings an outstanding pediatrics focus, and his background gives him great insight to the adult side as well. But I’m proud to bring adult oncology to the table and help us to be part of the process.

During your medical training, was this an avenue you hoped to pursue?

It’s funny, I originally went to medical school to be a pediatrician. I loved taking care of kids, and found that I was good at explaining complex medical topics to young folks in a way they could relate to.

But I found myself drawn to the cognitive approach of internal medicine, then the nuances of oncology, which largely involves an older patient population. It’s pretty cool to come back to caring for young people, now in a really different capacity than I first anticipated.

Why did you pick sarcoma as your clinical focus area?

This opportunity became available as I was finishing fellowship, and I jumped at the chance. Sarcomas can be hard diseases to treat, with intensive chemotherapy regimens and multimodal care sometimes involving surgery, radiation, and other specialists. But I really enjoy the communication and collaboration of multidisciplinary care, and I saw this as a chance to contribute to a population with a lot of needs.

I think we have a tremendous opportunity to improve both treatments and care delivery, and the advent of precision medicine opens a lot of doors in a heterogeneous group of diseases like sarcoma. The diversity of different subtypes means I am always learning, growing, and exploring new options for my patients.

Why UNC Lineberger?

I love UNC. I’m a North Carolina native and it is an honor to care for the patients of this great state. My grandparents practiced medicine here at UNC, my mom trained here, my dad and my sister recently joined the fold at UNC. This feels like home to me.

Of course, it helps that we have a world-class cancer center, ground-breaking research from genetics to cellular therapy to drug development, and incredibly rich collaboration with our phenomenal partners in the School of Public Health.

Our Cancer Outcomes Program is one of the best in the nation, in my biased opinion, and that is where my research is centered. So UNC Lineberger is really an ideal place for me and my career.