Grateful Cancer Survivor Makes Gift to
Wilmot Cancer Center
Local businessman endows Professorship with $1.5 million gift
Spend just a few minutes with Richard Bell, and his pride in his working class roots growing up on Lexington Avenue on Rochester’s west side are clearly evident. What’s even more evident, though, is his conviction and belief in giving back. Having experienced the strength he gained from relationships with other cancer patients who faced a similar diagnosis and path as his, he was quick to assume the same role as caring mentor to others (See sidebar on Bell’s recognition as the Inspiration Award recipient for 2011). However, he is also giving back in a way that will benefit even more patients facing a battle with cancer.
Bell is celebrating his triumph over cancer with a gift of $1.5 million that will be used to establish the Richard T. Bell Endowed Professorship in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the James. P. Wilmot Cancer Center. The gift is given in honor of Yuhchyau Chen, MD, Ph.D., interim chair of the department and a professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, who treated him. It will be used to support research activities in clinical cancer and radiation oncology, and to retain and recruit new faculty to further strengthen the department.
Endowed Professorships are awarded to faculty who are viewed as having demonstrated exceptional vision and services critical to the missions of their fields and institutions. These awards are one of the highest honors bestowed by the academic community.
“A donor-funded Professorship is a valuable resource that supports our clinical, research and education efforts,” said Richard I. Fisher, M.D., Director of the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center and Vice President of the University of Rochester Medical Center. “As other sources of funding decline given the turbulent economy of recent years, Endowed Professorships are an extremely important resource that strengthens and secures the future of our programs.”
“I always wanted to do something for the Cancer Center,” Bell said. “I wanted to do it while I was alive and healthy, not as a part of my will after I passed away. And, I wanted it to be a tribute not only to Dr. Chen but to all the nurses and technicians who treated me. The people in the radiation oncology program were the most caring people I had ever dealt with. They weren’t just doing their job; they cared deeply about you and went the extra mile to make sure you were as comfortable as possible. Every day the entire staff at the Cancer Center was full of encouragement and kindness.”
Richard Bell to Receive Inspiration Award at Discovery Ball
Richard Bell, a throat cancer survivor who has drawn on his own experience to help other cancer patients, will receive the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center’s Inspiration Award at the annual Discovery Ball, Saturday, May 21.
The Inspiration Award is the Wilmot Cancer Center’s highest honor and is presented annually to an individual who has helped cancer patients and their families have hope for the future. Bell, who was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer in early 2005, is being honored for the support and inspiration he provides to others. He is quick to assume the role of mentor, sharing his story and passing on hope.
One of the individuals for whom Bell provided support and inspiration is Gregory Smith, president and chief operating officer for Jay Advertising and a Wilmot Cancer Center National Advisory Board member.
Smith remembers feeling a lump in his neck in late October 2009. “I had not seen or felt anything there before, and I had a funny feeling about this,” Smith recalled. Subsequent trips to his primary care doctor and oncologist confirmed his suspicions. He was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“I knew Dick, but we weren’t particularly close,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget the day the doorbell rang and Dick was standing at my door. He said ‘I’m here to help you get through this’. “
Dick and I had the exact same thing (throat cancer) and he knew what I would be going through and took time to explain some of the things he had done wrong as a patient. This guy was awesome, he was so good to me, and it was all without fanfare,” Smith said.
“I am not afraid to say I love this guy (Bell). I will never forget the fantastic gift he’s given me.”
But Bell’s giving did not end there. His gift to endow a professorship at the Wilmot Cancer Center will help improve cancer care for others for years to come.
“I am inspired by Dick’s strength in fighting cancer, but also by his selflessness in making this incredible gift,” adds Bob Kessler, Wilmot Cancer Center Board Chair.
“I hope that his gift encourages others to give, at whatever level they can, so that our children and grandchildren won’t have to face the ravages of this disease.”
Bell’s ordeal began very late in 2004, when he noticed a lump in his neck during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Following the holidays, he went to his primary care physician, who immediately sent him to see an oncologist. He was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer that began in one of his tonsils, devastating news for the father of three.
“My first thought was that this was a very challenging situation,” Dr. Chen recalls. “The tumor in the left tonsil was very large and had extended to the larynx, retropharyngeal space, tongue base, and soft palate. We had to do everything we could by offering him the most aggressive combination chemotherapy and radiation to maximize the chance of success, so that Mr. Bell could preserve his speech and swallowing function after beating cancer.” “This was serious cancer, it was like a bombshell had been dropped on me,” said Bell, founder of North Central Mechanical Company, based in Victor, NY. “The first thing I did was call my accountant and lawyer to begin to get my things in order. The hardest thing was telling my sons (Richard Jr. and David) and daughter (Megan).
“The team of doctors at the Wilmot Cancer Center laid out an aggressive course of treatment. I had the financial resources to go and get treatment anywhere I chose, however the thought of leaving my family and friends scared me almost as much as the cancer itself. After several tests and meetings with the doctors, I decided that staying home and being treated at the Wilmot Cancer Center was my best choice. Thank God I made that decision.” Before his treatments began, Dr. Chen asked Bell if he would like to meet two other patients who had similar diagnoses and were doing well. She finds that patients who are willing to share their experiences with patients who are just starting treatment can help ease the fear of the unknown.
“At the time of Mr. Bell’s diagnosis, I happened to have a couple of patients who had completed similar treatment for their advanced cancer.” said Dr. Chen. “They had recovered from the acute side effects and were doing quite well. Both were willing to share their experiences with other patients and were more than delighted to speak with Mr. Bell.”
Bell agreed to meet them and hear their stories. They were positive and inspiring and started to change the way Bell thought. “It got me thinking I could beat this,” he said. “They did it, so could I. You look for anything to grab that might give you hope, and these guys gave me hope.”
Another source of hope and inspiration throughout his entire ordeal was the constant encouragement of Dr. Chen and the nurses and technicians who treated him.
“Although I looked bad and felt worse, they would constantly tell me how well I was responding to the treatment,” Bell remembers. Bell went through a grueling eight-week course of treatment that included two oneweek stays at Strong Memorial Hospital for chemotherapy and twice a day radiation treatments at the Wilmot Cancer Center for the duration.
“Larger tumors require more aggressive local therapy to eradicate,” said Dr. Chen. “If the tumor was not as extensive, standard chemotherapy and once a day radiation should work well. In the case of Mr. Bell’s tumor, we decided to use one of the most aggressive approaches.
“We did not want to take any chances. If the treatment had failed, the salvage surgery would have been a devastating situation with very poor quality of life, as both speech and swallowing function would have been lost.” When his radiation sessions ended, Bell received good news – he had responded so well to the treatments that follow-up surgery to clear the neck lymph nodes, often the norm, would not be required. Though he had to remain on a feeding tube for 12 months following the completion of his treatment, he gradually regained his ability to eat and swallow most of his favorite foods with the help of a swallowing coach.
“Mr. Bell had a positive attitude and had confidence in his caregivers,” said Dr. Chen. “It is my clinical experience that those types of patients may have better treatment outcome.” Bell and Dr. Chen shared lunch last summer to celebrate his five-year mark of remaining cancer free.
“We all know how smart she is,” Bell says with a laugh, “but she is a very caring person. You really know that you are in good hands, and really know that she wants you to survive. She made a bad situation so much better. We have become friends.”