Cancer is on the increase in Schuylkill County, rising from 959 cases in 2003 to 1,012 in 2007, according to the state Department of Health.

Now, cancer patients who seek treatment at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, Coaldale, don't have to travel to Bethlehem to have their operations done by surgeons who specialize in cancer.

Surgical oncologists Lee B. Riley, M.D., Ph.D, F.A.C.S. and Roderick Quiros, M.D., F.A.C.S., both of St. Luke's Cancer Care Associates, Bethlehem, now provide services at St. Luke's Coaldale campus.

The surgical oncologists offer patients specialized care that involves a team approach to give the best care to the patient.

"Ten, 20, 30 years ago, it was typically the general surgeon who did everything. But as the decades have progressed, we've seen a trend in specialization," Quiros said. "Likewise with cancer care."

Quiros offered as an example, changes in the way cancer is treated.

"Historically, with breast cancer, they would just take it out. If you had a (gastrointestinal tract) cancer, they would just take it out. But as we've learned more about cancer, we've realized there are other aspects to cancer care that tie in more with the medical and radiation oncology fields."

Further, in addition to working closely with medical and radiation oncologists, specialized cancer surgeons such as Quiros and Riley "tend to focus a lot on more complex procedures that wouldn't necessarily be in the domain of a general surgeon," Quiros said.

Pancreatic cancers, for example, "tend to be pretty complex, both technically and in terms of the care before and after surgery, along with the adjutant treatments," he said.

Quiros and Riley work with increasing numbers of breast cancer, melanoma, gastrointestinal, thyroid and other cancers.

"With surgical oncology, you have a whole variety of different organ systems and tumor types they deal with," Quiros said.

Patients do better with surgical oncologists because "we interact with our radiation and medical oncology colleagues a fair amount, so we are pretty familiar with what they do and how that ties in with what we do. Also, from a technical standpoint, when you do a fellowship, you are exposed to more complex cases, and so that initial training helps," he said.

Riley said he's thrilled when cancer surgery Is successful; devastated when it cannot be. But the pain and frustration are what pushes him even harder in research.

"I also recognize that sometimes we walk out of the operating room and we're not as successful as we'd like to be. I don't deal well with that emotionally, and that gives me my drive to go to the laboratory to make things better," he said.

Having surgeons who specialize in cancer is a boon for patients.

"Surgical oncology, like any other discipline ... if you specialize in something, you do it better. If you do it better, there are better outcomes," Riley said. "We can go through all kinds of papers (that show) better survival with breast cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer."

Both Riley and Quiros want people in the area to know they are available.

Newly-diagnosed cancer patients often are too frightened to take time to research their best options.

"They just sort of end up going close to home because it's convenient, because they've just been told they have cancer and they want to get it out today," Riley said.

Cancer patients are referred to the team by their own doctors. The Cancer Care center team – the region's only team of fellowship-trained surgical oncologists – works closely with other St. Luke's doctors, radiation oncologists, oncology nurses and cancer support staff.

"The physicians up here are fundamental components to make this work. We're here to be synergistic with everybody and work with them," Riley said.

Each member of Riley and Quiros' team, which also includes Dr. Darius Desai, M.D., FACS, brings his own finely-honed focus to the patient.

"We're all surgical oncologists. But as we've built up the team, we've all sub-specialized," Riley said.

Riley is learning more about breast cancer, while Quiros is studying gastrointestinal tract cancers. Riley and his surgical oncology colleagues perform RNA tests on tumors to help determine the best course of treatment, along with other state-of-the-art techniques that help chart each patient's unique treatment blueprint.

Both are highly-trained: Riley completed fellowships in cancer surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia after completing his training in general surgery; he was awarded a Ph.D. in Immunology from the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in San Antonio.

Quiros completed his fellowship in cancer surgery at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia after completing his residency in general surgery.

Both have received numerous awards and honors.

Riley recently published a book, "Before Breast Cancer Surgery," written specifically for newly-diagnosed patients. The book aims to help patients find the best team of doctors to treat the disease.

Patients who want to be treated by the team are asked to call (610) 954-2140 and ask for an appointment at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital.