A cancer diagnosis is a defining event in any person’s life. Dr. Brendon Stiles has dedicated his life to ensuring that this critical moment is as positive as possible for his patients.
In this day and age, diagnosis, medical treatments, and even surgery can play out behind a screen of technology. Dr. Stiles, however, strives to make the entire experience personal, prioritizing face-to-face interactions.
His career and achievements reflect and align with the three missions at Weill Cornell Medicine: to provide excellent patient care, discover cures through research, and teach the next generation of physicians.
Finding his path
Growing up on a farm in Virginia, Dr. Stiles was always drawn to medicine. Originally planning to be a veterinarian, he became more interested in treating people when he was in high school. He then went on to study medicine at the University of Virginia, where he met two cardiothoracic surgeons through a basketball group. “They both became significant mentors for me,” he explains, “and they allowed me to view their lives and practices.”
After medical school, he began general surgical residency at UVA. Following his first two years as a surgical resident, he began to focus on oncology and, more specifically, thoracic oncology. He took two years off from clinical duties to pursue basic science research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Stiles recounts, “At the time, lung cancer research and treatment innovations were starting to take off.”
Then, before his final year of residency, Dr. Stiles’ father died from lung cancer and he experienced, first hand, the stigma and fear attached to a lung cancer diagnosis. “After losing my father,” he recalls, “I knew that I wanted to devote my life to studying this disease and to curing patients with lung cancer.”
Despite — and because of — his grief, Dr. Stiles forged ahead with his studies. He became board certified in general surgery and then continued training and researching at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and New York-Presbyterian, specializing in surgical oncology and cardiothoracic surgery.
Dr. Stiles decided to stay in New York City after he completed his training. “I enjoy it here,” he says. “Everything moves fast, and everyone has high expectations—both of which suit my personality.” He is now the Associate Attending of Cardiothoracic Surgeon at New York-Presbyterian and an Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine.
A surgeon with a personal touch
Though surgery may seem more technical than personal, Dr. Stiles sought the sophisticated and fast-acting solutions surgery offers, finding immediate gratification in curing sick patients in this way. More than ever before, lung cancer is becoming treatable with earlier detection, minimally invasive surgical solutions, and novel drug therapies. Dr. Stiles aims to help provide all these options for his patients. “With the current advances in diagnosis and treatment,” he explains, “there has never been a better time to have lung cancer.”
Dr. Stiles says that he works as a doctor “first and foremost,” and finds his most fulfilling role is talking to patients and reassuring them as they navigate through their medical journeys. Surgery is just one of the possibilities after a diagnosis.
Dr. Stiles is devoted to imparting his “patient first” philosophy to medical students, surgical residents, and future thoracic surgeons. “A lot of hospital ‘rounds’ are now spent in front of computers gathering information,” he explains. “It’s critical that we teach about the human interactions that remain such an integral part of being a good doctor and surgeon.”
Many of Dr. Stiles’s patients have expressed their gratitude for his expert and personable care. One patient, Eve Cohn, saw Dr. Stiles after being diagnosed with Stage IA lung cancer. “Within two weeks of my initial x-ray, Dr. Stiles performed surgery on me to remove the lower third lobe of my right lung through three small incisions between my ribs,” she explains. “I could not have had better care. After two months, I felt fully recovered and better than ever.”
Eve has been living cancer-free for over seven years. Her appreciation and enthusiasm for Dr. Stiles and his team haven’t waned. “His kindness and caring continue to this day,” she says. “Even now if I need advice about any medical matter, Dr. Stiles gets back to me within a few days. That’s incredible for a doctor of his stature. Weill Cornell Medicine is very lucky to have Dr. Stiles, and I was lucky to have him as my surgeon.”
One common misconception is that lung cancer is a “smoker’s disease,” but about one-third of Dr. Stiles’ patients never smoked, including Wendy Li. “I eat healthy, go to the gym religiously, and never smoked,” she explains. “So, when I found out I had lung cancer and needed surgery, I was terrified and overwhelmed.”
Wendy visited Dr. Stiles, who was scheduled to attend a conference in Germany the following week. Dr. Stiles agreed to move his schedule around and perform surgery on Wendy only four days after her diagnosis. “Before he left for the conference, he gave me his cell phone number and told me to call if I had any concerns or questions. How many other doctors do that?” recounts Wendy. “Dr. Stiles and Weill Cornell Medicine made me feel comfortable and well taken care of throughout the entire process. It’s a wonderful, caring place.”
Research efforts for a better future
In addition to treating patients and performing surgery, Dr. Stiles also conducts research through the Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. He and his partners in the Neuberger Berman Lung Cancer Research Center — Dr. Nasser Altorki, Dr. Timothy McGraw, and Dr. Vivek Mittal — are currently studying a protein known as ART1, which they believe allows cancer cells to grow and metastasize (by protecting them from the body’s immune system). The ART1 project is funded by the Free to Breathe Metastasis Research Grant and is now in partnership with the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute to develop a therapeutic antibody against the protein.
Dr. Stiles also conducts clinical research on surgical management of early-stage lung cancer, which is helping shape the way surgeons throughout the nation approach lung tumors in the operating room. He and Dr. Altorki’s team are also researching biomarkers (measurable substances in living things) for lung cancer. By studying samples taken directly from consenting patients during surgery, they hope to better characterize nodules found in future patients enrolled in the Lung Cancer Screening Program, which would help guide therapeutic decisions.
Though Dr. Stiles has been awarded many prestigious grants, more funding is needed in the field of lung cancer research. “Lung cancer is grossly underfunded compared to other cancers,” he says. Dr. Stiles emphasizes the need to fund efforts to understand why patients get these diseases, as well as producing patient-centered quality research that can be easily reproduced and advance the field.
An advocate in the fight against lung cancer
To further advocate for both research and treatment of lung cancer patients, Dr. Stiles has established himself as a vocal supporter of these causes. He encourages conversation about lung cancer by being active on Twitter (@BrendonStilesMD), where he promotes the latest research, shares statistics, and engages with patients, practitioners, and other advocacy groups.
Dr. Stiles also currently sits as Chair of the Board of Directors at the Lung Cancer Research Foundation (LCRF); an organization with what he describes as an “unwavering commitment to the support of lung cancer research to which it has directed millions of dollars.”
He is eager to lead the foundation’s efforts to support crucial studies and research that will benefit future lung cancer patients. The role involves working with other foundations and organizations, raising the bar in terms of the overall amount of research funding directed toward lung cancer, as well as expanding the LCRF’s portfolio of grants. “It’s an incredibly exciting time for LCRF,” he explains. “We’re working to expand our brand and engage with more key stakeholders to fund important research.”
Dr. Stiles’ passion for academic medicine, patient advocacy, and lung cancer research is evident.
His ambitions for his career and the future of lung cancer research are large, yet remain grounded in the fact that each lung cancer patient is unique and requires personalized care. “It’s incredibly important,” he explains, “to pause and consider each patient’s unique perspective, to educate each patient about his or her disease, and to allow each to participate in decision making.” His continuous work reflects this belief, offering patients at Weill Cornell Medicine a more empowering journey through a difficult time.