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Mutlay Sayan

Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

Until he was 11, Mutlay Sayan lived in another world: a farm in eastern Turkey, not far from the borders with Armenia and Iran. He’d never seen an electric light or a motorized vehicle. He didn’t go to school, so he never learned to read or write. Instead, he helped his parents in the sugar beet and cotton fields.

“Then one year, my dad lost his voice, and his voice never came back, and he had to wait for the harvest season to be over, and he eventually went to a big city and was unfortunately diagnosed with lung cancer,” Sayan said. That changed everything. The family sold their patch of land and took a 24-hour bus ride to Istanbul, where Sayan, his siblings, and his mother all started work in a textile factory to support city life and his dad’s cancer treatment.

Only by showing up every day at the school next door during his breaks could he pester the headmaster into finding a spot for him. The librarian taught him his letters at the age of 13.

Now, 20 years and a medical degree later, he’s in his last year of his radiation oncology residency at the Rutgers Cancer Institute.

He’s done research on combinations of medications that better beat back mesothelioma, cancer rates among Syrian refugees in eastern Turkey, and fatigue after treatment in brain cancer patients. He’s shown that a shorter, more intense course of radiation and chemotherapy doesn’t cause cardiac side effects, which could help lessen the interruption to cancer patients’ lives.

“If you are extending someone’s life, it should be a good life.”

His dad’s pain is always on his mind. “If you are extending someone’s life, it should be a good life,” he said. “God forbid, we’ll extend your life for three months but those three months will suck.”

—  Eric Boodman