Dr. Stanley Marks doesn’t normally feel the pressure — a career in treating cancer patients, often high-profile ones, has ensured that much.
But when the star running back of one of his favorite sports teams announced his Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis in December, Marks began to feel the heat. As the primary doctor overseeing James Conner’s chemotherapy treatments, he knows the city is now watching him closely.
“Someone sent this story to me, it said, ‘Narduzzi guarantees James Conner will be playing in the fall.’ Narduzzi guarantees it. I said to James and his mother, ‘He must know something I don’t,’” Marks said.
Marks, 68, received his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Pitt in 1969 and 1973, respectively, and has spent nearly his entire career developing the region’s medical network and treating its patients. But currently, he said the public sees him first as the doctor who’s returning Pitt’s star running back to the field.
“I’m glad [Narduzzi] is 100 percent confident. Hopefully [Conner] will do well and he will be back in the fall … but there are no guarantees in this business,” Marks said.
He rarely misses a Pitt football or basketball game, where it’s gotten harder to dodge concerned fans. At the Wake Forest University basketball game Feb. 16, he said at least 20 people approached him asking about Conner’s health and treatment status.
“I don’t want to say I feel like a celebrity, but I feel like everyone knows that I’m treating James,” Marks said. “Now, he’d better do well.”
Still, Marks’ tenure and work with big Pittsburgh figures has cemented that reputation.
In addition to treating athletes like former Steelers players Merril Hoge and Ryan Clark, as well as a Pittsburgh mayor, he’s started organized groups, such as the Cancer Caring Center and the Western Pennsylvania Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
He is also the chairman of UPMC CancerCenter and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Balancing all that work is just a “matter of efficiency,” Marks said, but his outside life provides an escape — especially now that Pitt’s football and basketball teams have improved since his own college days.
“I’ve always gone to all the football games and lived through it,” Marks said. “It’s funny, when I went to Pitt, their record was like 1-9, 1-9, 3-7, 1-9, or something like that. When we played teams like Oklahoma and lost 60-0, they wouldn’t stop the clock because the scores were so bad.”
So current head coach Pat Narduzzi, who’s had more success than those early days, may find his top fan in Marks.
Narduzzi led the Panthers to an 8-5 record in his first season, but more importantly, Marks said, Narduzzi deeply cares about his players — something the doctor has witnessed firsthand.
In February, an attendant tracked down Marks to ask if he could return to the treatment area where Conner was in the middle of one of his multi-hour chemotherapy sessions.
“So I went back there, and there was Narduzzi, and he’d just come up there on his own to sit with him while he was getting his treatment,” Marks said. “Coaches just don’t do that. I’ve treated a lot of athletes, and professional athletes — it just doesn’t happen. He just came up there by himself, no cameras, no one knew about it.”
For Marks, connecting with patients in a field where death can strike any day is always difficult.
During the most emotionally draining period of his career, he was the primary physician treating former Pittsburgh mayor Bob O’Connor, who died from brain lymphoma after just six months in office in 2006.
“Aside from losing a friend and a mayor, it was just all the dynamics involved,” Marks said. “They’d be calling my cell phone at 1 a.m., the reporters. I cried myself to sleep most nights … It was so difficult to take care of him because he just wasn’t getting better. It took me months to get over that one, emotionally.”
In his line of work, Marks sees near-death patients almost daily, but he said strong-willed fighters like Conner are what keep him going.
Conner’s final chemotherapy treatment is scheduled for May 9, and he is constantly sending Marks videos of himself working out or running on the treadmill.
“I think he had [the treadmill] turned up as high as it would go. It was, I mean, oh my God,” Marks said. “For next season, for Pat, I’d like to say [the team should finish] 9-3, at a minimum. Anything less, I’ll tell him we’ll be disappointed.”
If Conner can return to the field Sept. 3, against Villanova University — Marks said in a December press conference the cure rate is 85 to 95 percent — fans will cheer the work of the most famous doctor in the stands.
“Now I’ll get to put the pressure on him,” Marks said.