Culture and Trends ›

RIP to 6 Great Cancer Fighters

Getty Images / fstop123

These cancer doctors, nurses, and scientists devoted their lives to helping others

On World Cancer Day, February 4, we remember the ongoing fight: Cancer takes more than half a million lives worldwide each year, and it affects millions more.

Fortunately, those dealing with cancer aren't alone. In their corner stand all the people who have devoted their lives to finding treatments and improving the prognoses of those suffering. Cancer researchers, oncologists and oncology nurses -- these medical professionals are literal lifesavers. 

They're also people, with their own lives. As we see in the obituaries, some truly beloved doctors, nurses and scientists died this past year. Here at Legacy, we take a moment to spotlight six of the most lovingly remembered life stories of cancer fighters, whose recent obituaries tell the stories of the work they did and the impact they had.


Help the fight against cancer by supporting one of these charities today



Compassionate Doctor and Expert Teacher

Dr. Peter de Ipolyi – "Dr. D" to his patients – came to the U.S. as a refugee, having been born as his family escaped an oppressive regime in Hungary. He grew up with the opportunity to excel in his adopted home, graduating high school at 16 and moving on to medical school. There, he found his calling as an oncologist:

In 1973, Dr. de Ipolyi met Dr. John Stehlin and completed a one-year surgical oncology fellowship with The Stehlin Foundation for Cancer Research. From that point forward, he knew surgical oncology was the path he was meant to take, and he followed it for 40 years.

Dr. de Ipolyi became a partner in the Stehlin & de Ipolyi Oncology Clinic and Associate Scientific Director of The Stehlin Foundation for Cancer Research. He was also a surgical oncologist and general surgeon at Sisters of Charity – St. Joseph. Dr. de Ipolyi was well-known in the scientific and medical community for his expertise in the surgical treatment of breast cancer, melanoma, and other solid tumors. He took great pleasure in teaching young surgical residents and saw many go on to excellent careers throughout the country.

Many patients come to love and rely on their oncologists. It's easy when the doctor is as special as Dr. D:

His patients adored Dr. D because he spent as much time as needed with them and their families and was always available to answer their questions and soothe their fears. He was truly one of a kind- brilliant, compassionate and loving with a vibrant personality and a strong drive to help others. Dr. D touched so many lives and will be tremendously missed by all.

Helping Patients With Financial Needs

Dr. Barry C. Lembersky was a Pittsburgh oncologist who "treated thousands of patients for breast, colon and pancreatic cancer for more than 30 years." But his caring for people with cancer went beyond his work as a doctor:

He was a devoted supporter of The Aleph Institute, a non-profit that provides financial, emotional and spiritual assistance to Jews in prisons and mental institutions. His acts of compassion throughout his life embraced the institute's motto - Because No One Should Be Alone or Forgotten. Twelve years ago, Dr. Lembersky created the Patient Assistance Fund to help cancer patients meet the challenges of paying for basic living expenses while receiving treatment. The foundation raised more than $1 million and Dr. Lembersky often expressed his pride and gratitude that every penny went directly to patients in need.

Dr. Lembersky also taught medical students:

He was committed to the next generation of oncologists, mentoring Fellows and hosting an annual dinner at his home at the end of the year. His dedication at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine won him a distinguished teaching award.

There's life outside the office, too, and Dr. Lembersky clearly knew that. His obituary paints a picture of a man who brightened the lives of everyone he knew:

Dr. Lembersky had a flair for writing creative and meaningful letters and notes. In fact, many people thanked him for his thank you notes. He even collected the junk mail that came to the house for his children, just so he could forward it to them with a loving note of his own.

Nurse, Mentor, and "Mama"

Anyone who has ever had to see an oncologist knows that it's not just the doctor who touches lives by fighting cancer. Oncology nurses work hand-in-hand with doctors and devote their lives to helping their patients. Ann Guinta Wilkinson was one of those nurses, one of the first licensed nurse practitioners in the state of Louisiana:

She worked her entire distinguished medical career in New Orleans, including as a staff nurse at DePaul Hospital 1971-73; Assistant Clinical Instructor at Hotel Dieu School of Nursing 1973-74; Head Nurse in the Adult Unit at Coliseum House; and for 30 years as Clinical Research Nurse at the Tulane Medical School, Section of Oncology/Hematology, Tulane Cancer Center. She was the confidante and adviser of some of the most distinguished physicians in the city, including Drs. Jack Stuckey, German Beltran, Salvador Caputo and Leonard Thomas.

She was a mentor to numerous medical and nursing students, some of who called her "Mama," and a friend and caregiver to countless cancer patients, many of whom she saw at the old Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where she regularly made rounds and worked at one of her favorite duties.

Wilkinson was devoted to her career and made her mark there:

She was a charter member of the Oncology Nursing Society 1975--98; Secretary and member of the Southwest Oncology Group, Nurse Oncologist Committee; Affiliate Member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Association of Cancer Research; and President in 1981 of New Orleans Oncology Nurses. She presented two papers to professional associations concerning cancer research.

Cancer Researcher Turned Mayor

Dr. Chi-Wei Lin's contribution to the lives of people with cancer took place not in a doctor's office, but in a lab. He was a cancer researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital:

Dr. Lin headed a research laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, studying cancer cells and publishing dozens of articles over the next 20 years. These publications are cited by other cancer researchers to this day.

Later in life, Dr. Lin moved to a small town in California, where he became a city councilman and mayor, as well as an artist:

He drove for the adoption of a more modern form of city government and enabling a dedicated police department, new sidewalks, and renovated and repaved the town's tennis court. Chi-wei always understood the many sides of Trinidad's challenges and could often draw a compromise from seemingly intractable situations. Trinidad also stirred Dr. Lin's creative side. Inspired by the sea and the sky, both Dr. Lin and Donna took up oil painting. Together, they created dozens of paintings capturing the area's unmistakable landscapes and even more colorful residents.

When Dr. Lin was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he turned to his scientific background to approach his diagnosis:

Applying his scientific discipline to the problem, Lin proceeded to study Parkinson's Disease with immaculate vigor, reading research papers on Parkinson's studies. He spent his last decade researching and growing fava beans, now shown to have to be partially substituted for part of the conventional medication without the side effects.

Compassion for Children With Cancer

Dr. Allen Goorin was an oncologist with a heartbreaking specialty: children with cancer:

Allen was a beloved pediatrician and pediatric oncologist to thousands of children, both healthy and sick. He was a general pediatrician at Longwood Pediatrics, where he treated babies to 20-somethings (and their parents) with his intelligence, compassion, and charm. Allen also ran the Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) Program at The Dana Farber in Boston, caring for many children and teens with the disease over the course of his career.

His obituary talks about the massive impact he made in his work:

He was instrumental and a driving force in probably the most important Osteosarcoma study showing that adjuvant chemotherapy was effective in improving survival of Osteosarcoma patients. In the late 1970s, the use of chemotherapy was in unchartered waters and the undertaking of a randomized study was controversial, yet necessary. Allen's courageous leadership helped it to happen. The results of that study have changed the treatment of this type of cancer forever and have saved countless lives. The dramatic improvement in survival has really not been increased since.

And it's clear that Dr. Goorin was a fun-loving man with a passion for family and friends:

Among his many interests were: running, cycling, wind-surfing, skiing, softball (his team never won but they had the most fun, until they were asked to leave the league due to lack of talent), movies, jazz music, the Celtics, the Red Sox, and trips abroad with Linda. He made the most delicious fruit bowls in the morning for his children. Allen was a sweet soul, incredibly kind, and a friend to anyone who crossed his path. To know him was to love him, and he loved you back.

Oncologist Despite Great Odds

Dr. Norma Sternberg Wollner's story is one of triumph over adversity. Her obituary details how she rose from poverty to become an oncologist:

She was born in 1929 and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, daughter of a poor but fabulous seamstress, and Norma made her way, against great odds, to medical school. She moved to New York City when she was 26 to do her residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she met and married fellow oncologist Stephen Sternberg, and where she served as a pediatric oncologist for the next 40 years.

Norma had a distinguished and incomparable career at the hospital, developing treatments which substantially increased the cure rate for nonhodgkins lymphoma, starting the Brazilian children's Fund on behalf of hospital patients from her home country, and starting the Cancer Center's pediatric day hospital, a novel and game-changing concept in cancer care.

Like so many of the selfless oncologists who are loved by their patients, Dr. Wollner devoted herself to caring for people:

Norma was the kind of dedicated physician that everyone hopes for, who never hesitated to take phone calls in the middle of the night from sick patients and worried parents. We will all miss her commitment, compassion, intelligence and endless depth of knowledge.

The story of her life and her love is one that makes us wish we could have known her:

Norma and her husband Stephen together devoted over 90 years of service to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, holding hands and walking to work every morning, until they retired in 1999.

Norma was an avid gardener and cook, and for many years she and Stephen spent weekends at their beautiful Croton on Hudson country home, cooking, planting, pruning, weeding, and playing with their dogs, with martinis in hand. No one could throw a party like Norma, and she did so with her South American flair, creativity and contagious passion twice a year for most of her adult life. Norma was beloved and treasured by so many. She was fully Norma until the end, keen of mind, quick to laugh, with a fierce and loving spirit, priding herself on "telling it like it is."


Help the fight against cancer by supporting one of these charities today