September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Did you know that every year, approximately 13,400 children are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S.? Cancer is also the number one cause of disease-related death among children. These numbers are horrifying, yet realistic. That’s why it’s important that we raise awareness for childhood cancer, as we hope that one day, families will never have to hear the words, “Your child has cancer.”
In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness month, I sat down with Dr. Robert Sutphin, pediatric oncologist at Arnold Palmer Hospital, to give our families and community a chance to get to know him better, outside of the exam room.
In his own words, Dr. Sutphin adds, “This is Dr. Sutphin and I approve this message.” So, let’s get started.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the small town of Parkersburg, West Virginia with a population of about 44,000 people. My family then moved to an even smaller town, Vienna, in West Virginia that had a population of 11,000 people.
What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
The first time I remember thinking about wanting to “be something” was after losing a friend in a fire – I wanted to be a fire fighter. I wanted to help people in trouble. Growing up in the late 70s and 80s, as personal computers became available, I became fascinated with computers and taught myself how to write basic computer programs. I had always expected I would be a computer programmer.
What was your first job?
I got my first job when I was 16 years old at Wendy’s.
What are your hobbies?
I still like computers and technology, but more recently my hobby is running. I used to run a lot when I was in the Air Force – my goal was always to run faster than the Marine Corps, and I was able to do that! I just recently picked it back up and will be running in this year’s Miracle Miles 15K. We have a team named, “Team Chemo.”
Do you have a favorite book?
When I was a child, Winnie the Pooh books were always a favorite. Recently, I have been reading about the Revolutionary and Civil wars. I have also enjoyed The Emperor of all Maladies, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and One in Three: A Son’s Journey into the History and Science of Cancer. The interesting thing about these three books is that they all shed light on the way that cancer affects families.
Which one is your favorite?
Of the more recent books, I really enjoyed The Art of Racing in the Rain because it gives the reader a chance to see things differently, as the story is told from a dog’s perspective.
What do you like to do on the weekends with your family?
This year, my wife and I celebrated 23 years in marriage. We have one son, who is 9 years old, and we like to play soccer. I’m not very good at it, but I pretend like I know what I’m doing. I like to give him a lot of opportunities to expand his world – I think that’s one of the best things about being a parent. We travel, and we play games. We like to challenge each other playing games on the Xbox, and he beats me (and not because I’m letting him!).
Do you have a favorite sports team?
The Pittsburgh Steelers. I adopted them as my team when I was a child, after they won the Super Bowl in the early 70s. I always say, “If you are going to pick a team, pick a winner!” My favorite college football team would have to be the Marshall Thundering Herd. You will usually see me wearing green on Fridays during football season! My favorite baseball team would have to be the Cincinnati Reds. For basketball, I love the Orlando Magic.
Where did you go to school?
I first went to DeVry Institute of Technology to pursue a degree in computer engineering/programming. However, I shifted gears and decided to join the Air Force. It was there that I nurtured my love for science. I was trained to work as a medical technologist and pursued a degree in Medical Technology from Midwestern State University. While in the Air Force, I was urged to go to medical school, and I was always quick to shoot the idea down, saying, “it would take too much time.” That’s when I received the best advice ever given to me, advice that changed my life. “So, how old are you going to be in seven years if you don’t go [to medical school]?” I served in the Air Force for ten years, and I loved it. The Air Force changed my life.
Why do you think you never dreamed of being in the medical field as a child?
My mom was always sick growing up. And to me, being around doctors and hospitals wasn’t my idea of “fun.”
When did you decide to be a pediatric oncologist?
I did not decide, I think it chooses you. In my 3rd year of medical school, I was assigned to pediatrics, and my first rotation was hematology/oncology. My first patient was eventually diagnosed with Leukemia. It was that day that I knew what I wanted to do. I felt a natural comfort working with kids and parents, and felt that I could help families in a big way. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
How long have you been working at Arnold Palmer Hospital?
I was a resident here in 2001, left for fellowship training at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, and came back in 2007, for a total of seven years now.
What do you enjoy most about working at Arnold Palmer Hospital?
The friends, colleagues, and camaraderie are important, but of course, I am here because of the patients and families.
What are some of your favorite memories of working at Arnold Palmer Hospital?
There are so many mixed memories. Some are hard to talk about. I love getting the families together in a way that helps them know they aren’t alone. I enjoy raising awareness and having the walks.
The kids teach me more than I ever expect them to. They teach me bravery. These kids are so brave; the parents are so brave. It is the worst way to meet such great people. I am always impressed by how families come through the diagnosis of a life-threatening problem stronger, more grateful for one another, and more loving as a family.
What would you tell a family who has just learned that their child has cancer?
I would tell them to take a deep breath, let us know what you are worried about, because we are here to help you. Sometimes, in that moment, it’s hard to believe that things will get better, but it can, it will, and it does. Help us take care of you, your family, and your child.
What is something that many families don’t know about you?
I’m very serious (just kidding!). I come from a family of seven kids. I’m a true computer geek at heart. My favorite color is green, I like frogs (if you want to know why, you’re just going to have to ask Dr. Sutphin!).
In what ways has Dr. Sutphin touched your family? Let’s show him some appreciation for his care and dedication to caring for kids who are diagnosed with childhood cancer!
Make an impact by giving back, and help support care for kids with cancer in Central Florida. Become a fundraiser by visiting the Center for Children’s Cancer & Blood Disorders donation page.