Running, a Lot of Discipline, and a Little Bit of Jazz: Walter J. Curran Jr Is a Giant of Cancer Care in Radiation Oncology

Article

Walter J. Curran Jr, MD, always had the potential to be an overachiever, but his sense of discipline turned that potential into reality.

Walter J. Curran Jr, MD

Walter J. Curran Jr, MD

Walter J. Curran Jr, MD, started a new job this year working for an Australia-based oncology services provider, so it’s no surprise that he spent the summer with his mind and his device screens tethered to the other side of the world.

Then again, those who know Curran realize that his new job wasn’t the only thing drawing his attention eastward. He was also glued to the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo. During an early July interview, Curran explained that he had just finished “watching as much of the US Olympic track and field trials” as he could. A month later, when asked if the same was true of the track and field events at the Olympics, he replied: “Yes, indeed.”

Curran, who turned 70 in April, is not just a spectator when it comes to running.

“I ran the Atlanta Pride 5K race a week ago here in the rain, and then I’m going to run the masters mile in the Penn Relays up in Philadelphia in a couple weeks,” he said.

Curran has run all his life, dating to his days growing up on the North Shore of Boston, Massachusetts. “I had a high school track coach who influenced a whole generation of people I grew up with in a very positive way,” he said.

Later, Curran would become a track coach himself. And even after he became a physician and began his rapid rise to the top of the field of radiation oncology, he always found time to run.

“I don’t know any better,” he said. “I still run.”

An Indirect Path to the Clinic

In January, Curran stepped down after more than a decade as executive director of Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, taking a job as global chief medical officer at GenesisCare, an oncology-care network with more than 380 locations around the world. At Emory, Curran also chaired the Department of Radiation Oncology. In addition, he served as a founding group chairman of NRG Oncology, a National Cancer Institute–funded clinical trial cooperative group.

Curran is known for his wide-ranging expertise and interdisciplinary approach, particularly in the care and research focused on patients with lung cancer or brain tumors. However, the start of his decades-long career in medicine was anything but typical.

“In my senior yearbook in high school, I said I wanted to be an engineer,” he said. “And I think that had to do with growing up in the technology belt around Boston.”

Curran’s goals had changed by the time he met with his undergraduate adviser at Dartmouth College. He told the adviser that he wanted to teach school, coach track, and then become a physician. No one was more surprised that he was going into medicine than Curran himself.

“I don’t think I ever thought about that before that moment,” he recalled. “But those are the words that came out of my mouth, and so I stuck to it.”

Curran taught for 5 years, including 3 years teaching middle school science at a newly integrated public school in rural Georgia. In addition to teaching, he coached track, with one of his athletes tying Jesse Owens’ record in the 100-yard dash. Because that student was in special education, running track in college was not an option for him. Instead, Curran arranged for him to join the US Marine Corps, where he was able to run on their track team.

“[Teaching] is the hardest work I ever did, especially my first year, but it also requires a sense of comfort with yourself and poise that is really probably more significant than at any job I ever had,” Curran said.

Still, he felt his true calling was medicine, so he enrolled at the Medical College of Georgia. He zeroed in on radiation oncology during a rotation at Harvard Medical School’s Joint Center for Radiation Therapy.

“What grabbed me was the tremendous diversity of patients…the fact that radiation oncologists really had extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge as applied to patients— whether they were pediatric patients or adults with brain tumors, lung cancer, breast cancer, or [gastrointestinal] cancers,” he said. “And there was really an inspiring group of faculty and residents in that program.”

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Curran completed his residency at the University of Pennsylvania radiation oncology program before joining the faculty at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. He was then recruited to chair the Department of Radiation Oncology at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Ben W. Corn, MD, who was vice-chair under Curran at Thomas Jefferson in the mid-1990s, says Curran stood out for his collaborative approach to colleagues.

“Some people in academic medicine just keep to themselves, but that was never his way,” said Corn, now a professor of oncology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The greatest Wally Curran contribution is just his commitment to cooperation.”

Despite working in a field where publication bylines and individual credit are the currency for advancement, Curran was constantly seeking to partner with others. “He’s got drive,” Corn added. “But for Wally, it’s overwhelmingly about the cooperative opportunities.”

True to form, Curran said that one of the things he is most proud of is his ability to build successful teams. “Not my personal achievements,” he said, “but putting together a team that thrives has been exciting.”

Suresh S. Ramalingam, MD, who succeeded Curran as executive director at Winship, says Curran’s impact on the field has been far-reaching, including optimizing treatment in patients with non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and advocating for combined modality approaches as the longtime leader of NRG Oncology.

In the case of NSCLC, in 2011 Curran and colleagues waded into a debate about the optimal treatment for the relatively common but also heterogenous cancer type. At issue was whether sequential delivery of chemotherapy followed by thoracic radiotherapy was preferable versus concurrent delivery. In the phase 3 RTOG 9410 trial (NCT01134861) of more than 600 patients with NSCLC, Curran and colleagues showed that concurrent treatment significantly increased 5-year survival rates, leading to improvements in treatment for the roughly 50,000 Americans diagnosed with NSCLC each year.

In another widely cited phase 3 study, RTOG 9508 (NCT00002708), Curran showed that whole-brain radiotherapy combined with stereotactic boost treatment improved functional autonomy and survival in patients with single unresectable brain metastases. His work evaluating combined modalities has led to improved outcomes or modalities in several cancer types, including improved survival in anaplastic thyroid carcinoma.

Yet, even as his name appeared in major studies in big-name journals, Curran made time to extend his cooperative approach to patient care too.

“Despite his leadership roles that kept him busy, he was always available for his patients,” Ramalingam said. “He would always call me after seeing any mutual patient to update me on his recommendations. When things were not going well for a patient, he would always make the call to me to determine if anything else could be done to help that particular patient.”

Corn notes that Curran treated every patient the same—with the utmost dignity. When they worked together in Philadelphia, the hospital treated a sizable number of homeless people.

“There was just no way he would ever treat them differently than, say, a donor’s brother who came in,” Corn said.

A Scientist with a Love for Art

Curran is a father of 2 daughters and 2 sons. His oldest daughter is a filmmaker, and his other daughter is finishing up graduate school in art history. His elder son is in college studying business, and his younger son is in high school. His wife of 15 years, Laura, is a computer software programmer. This past July 4, Curran became a grandfather for the first time.

Though Curran has had a career in the sciences, the arts have also played an important role in his life. Corn says that Curran has an obsessive love of jazz music. He remembered one time when Curran reported being tired from the night before. What kept him up so late? He had been at a jazz club.

Corn recalled Curran saying, “I just got this urge to hear some jazz.”

Like Curran’s love of running, his love of jazz started early.

“There was a jazz club called Sandy’s in my childhood neighborhood, which brought in the best jazz musicians from around Boston and beyond, and I hung out there whenever I could sneak in during high school and college,” he said.

In Philadelphia, he was friends with the owners of a bar that became the launchpad for 3-time Grammy winner Jill Scott. His favorite concert of all time was seeing Miles Davis play unannounced and unaccompanied at an outdoor waterfront concert in Philadelphia on Independence Day in 1984.

“Why do I love jazz? I never forget how that music makes me feel,” he said.

Curran is a voracious reader. He reads every short story in The New Yorker, plus James Joyce’s and William Faulkner’s shorter works and as many contemporary short stories he can find.

“You have a tight narrative, you get to the point,” he said. “You have your crisis, your climax, your resolution, but you just have to do it with fewer words. So I think the words are more precious.”

The Value of Discipline

One of the traits that has helped Curran succeed— whether in the clinic or on the track—has been his sense of discipline. He learned about discipline through one of his mentors, his childhood priest John D’Arcy.

“He was just a very disciplined man and a tremendous influence on me when I was very young,” Curran recalled.

D’Arcy, who later became the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana, is known for sounding the alarm on sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, which resulted in the 2015 film, Spotlight.

Curran says discipline often has a negative connotation, suggesting a lack of joy or pleasure. He does not see it that way.

“To me, discipline is a means to an end,” he said. “You’re not going to get satisfaction out of most things you do unless you apply some discipline to it, and that can be sports, hobbies, your work relationships, or anything.”

It was discipline that helped Curran become a lifelong runner and discipline that gave him the strength to grit his way through those tough early years as a teacher. Discipline fortified him during impossibly long days as a resident, and discipline helped etch his place at the top of his field.

In short, though he always had the potential to be an overachiever, his sense of discipline turned his potential into reality. His parents, however, would likely say that he simply met their high expectations for him. Like many working-class people, Curran’s parents, a machinist and a homemaker, harbored sky-high hopes for their high-achieving son, but they were “the extreme opposite of pushy parents,” he said.

Yet, when Curran called to say he had been accepted into medical school, his father responded in a way that still chokes Curran up.

“What I expected was some version of, ‘Congratulations,’ some polite version of ‘It’s about time,’ ” he said. “What he said instead was, ‘Medicine is very lucky to have you.’ ”

Related Videos
Marc J. Braunstein, MD, PhD
Rita Nanda, MD
Vikram Narayan, MD
Daniel Olson, MD
A panel of 4 experts on colorectal cancer
A panel of 4 experts on colorectal cancer
Vishal Patel, MD, FAAD, FACMS, associate professor, Dermatology, George Washington (GW) School of Medicine & Health Sciences
Catherine C. Coombs, MD, associate clinical professor, medicine, University of California, Irvine School of Medicine
Adam S. Faye, MD
Siddartha Yadav, MD, FACP