First published in the Nov. 18 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
If there was a rock star hall of fame for cancer researchers, City of Hope Medical Oncologist and Hematologist Provost and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Steven Rosen would now be gracing its walls.
As a leader in the world of hematologic research, Rosen was recently inducted into the Giants of Cancer Care 2021 class, a program that celebrates oncology legends for their groundbreaking achievements in oncology research and clinical practice. Rosen, nominated for his research and care in lymphoma, was one of 14 oncologists chosen for the recognition.
The annual campaign celebrates the achievements of leading physicians and investigators who have devoted their time, talent and resources to improving care for the many patients and their families affected by cancer. Their discoveries have propelled the field forward and established the building blocks for future advances for treatment and preventative care.
“Dr. Rosen is an exceptional leader with a commitment to innovative science, translational research and compassionate patient care. As an internationally known specialist in blood cancers and a visionary leader, he has attracted top scientific talent to City of Hope, putting us at the forefront of cutting-edge research and groundbreaking discovery,” said Robert Stone, President and CEO of City of Hope and the Helen and Morgan Chu Chief Executive Officer Distinguished Chair. “Dr. Rosen’s Giants of Cancer Care award is extremely well-deserved and recognizes his profound impact on cancer care.”
Rosen and his fellow recipients of the 2021 awards were chosen based on qualities that distinguish them from others, including selflessness, compassion for their patients and a desire to understand and develop life-changing treatments against a disease that afflicts so many.
“This has been a complete surprise —a great honor, but a complete surprise,” Rosen said. “I was aware of the recognition and the Giants of Cancer Care, but I never really considered myself in the same light as the previous recipients. They are national figures and renowned in our world, and so, I’m thrilled and so proud.”
Apart from his pioneering research and clinical care, Rosen is a professed humanitarian who leads patient care with warmth, empathy and compassion — of his 250 active patients with blood cancers, every person has his cell phone number. His patients have fond nicknames for him, sometimes calling him “Dr. Steven,” and often more affectionate monikers without the “Dr.” title, which he declined to divulge (“I couldn’t, it would make me blush,” he confided).
Rosen enjoys hearing his patients’ stories, where they are from and the adventures they have had, noting, “It’s fascinating to hear about their lives and what they’ve accomplished.”
By making sure his patients have his cell phone number, he is constantly in contact with them and their care.
“They can call me anytime if they are having an issue; it’s just how I operate,” he said. “I try (to) be truly connected to each patient … I like people, I like dialoguing. I feel blessed that I can help, and I also learn and receive so much from my patients. As much as I give them, they give me.”
This personal connection is one that Rosen uses to fight for each of his patients, and largely drives his research efforts to prolong quality life for them. He sees oncology research as a team sport and works tirelessly with colleagues to develop modern treatment approaches and to create a better understanding of the disease.
After more than three decades, Rosen considers himself lucky to be able to recognize the advancements research has afforded: “It’s astonishing. I have not had a single death in about three years related to the diseases I treat. I’ve also had about two dozen patients who have had COVID who have all survived. All my patients are immunocompromised, so it’s all had to do with modern treatments.”
With all his accomplishments, it’s hard to believe that Rosen almost didn’t become a physician. He first set out to become a sports writer. The born and bred New Yorker was attending Northwestern University when a confluence of events set him on his path, he recalled. The school had to shut down due to turmoil surrounding protests of the Vietnam War, and out of boredom, he tagged along with a friend to an introductory meeting about the school’s medical program. As the son of a textile merchant and a schoolteacher, Rosen didn’t know any doctors and never considered the career before, but his interest was piqued. Even when his stellar grades in chemistry and math warranted him an interview into the honors program, he only feigned interest. After being accepted, his father tried to dissuade him from the career.
“I think he didn’t really like doctors very much,” Rosen said, laughing.
Despite being accepted into the prestigious honors medical program, Rosen took his time before attending, and chose to spend another year taking literature and economics, as well as completing an independent study with a developmental biologist.
Now, more than 30 years on, Rosen sets the scientific direction at City of Hope, shaping the research and educational vision for the biomedical research, treatment and education institution. Working closely and collaboratively with the hospital’s scientists, clinicians and administrative leaders, he develops strategies that contribute to the organization’s mission. Apart from being provost, chief scientific officer and a member of City of Hope’s executive team, he also is director of the comprehensive cancer center and Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, and holds the Irwell & Manella Cancer Center Director’s Distinguished Chair and the Morgan & Helen Chu Director’s Chair of the Beckman Research Institute.
Perhaps it was that unconventional start to his career that has made him so well-rounded, but Rosen, who resides in La Cañada Flintridge, is also an accomplished poet. He has published an anthology of poems called “Stolen Moments,” a nod to the rare instances of downtime he might have to reflect and write. The poems explore existential topics and morality-based issues such as war and cancer, along with romance. He intends to keep writing and just published a full collection, “Heartfelt Reflections,” in English and Spanish, and available on Amazon.
Rosen is also a doting father to four children and a granddaughter, and loves rooting on all the L.A.-based sports teams. He’s often spotted wearing his Dodgers cap.
Now in the crux of his career, Rosen gives credit to all his outstanding colleagues in cancer research and the team at City of Hope. With them, he has grand plans for groundbreaking cancer research.
“We’re going to make a profound impact on the early detection and therapy and cures of cancer,” he said, noting that the priority areas at the cancer center are precision medicine and how to improve treatments, “but also looking at an inherited risk of cancer so we can help families with early detection and prevention.” That includes the broad field of cellular therapeutics, ranging from stem cell transplants through all the immunologic therapies.
Health equity is also a priority, said Rosen: “We’re putting a lot of effort into health equity because there have been such terrible disparities in different populations.”
The other priority is taking advantage of the expanding network of community practice sites that are aligned with City of Hope throughout Southern California.
“That’s all moving forward, and we’re very proud of those satellites,” he said. “On a personal level, I have a number of projects in the lab that I think are evolving into hopefully next generation treatments that may be very effective in curing a spectrum of cancers or at least treating a spectrum of cancers. That’s my goal.”