Well-loved brain surgeon left patients with 'more hope'

SEATTLE -- Dr. Greg Foltz, a leader in the fight against brain cancer, died from pancreatic cancer at home and surrounded by family June 27. He was only 50 years old.

"It's not fair for what he has done for all of us," said patient Kami Combs.

For all the incredible work he did for his patients, Foltz's life could have turned out dramatically different.

In his early 20s, Foltz was a classically trained pianist on his way to The Julliard School in New York City when a close friend was diagnosed with brain cancer.

"When she was diagnosed I was able to experience firsthand what it is like to experience this disease through the eyes of someone you care about," Foltz said in a 2012 video interview conducted by Swedish Hospital.

Six months after his friend died from the disease, Foltz changed career paths and decided he would spend his life searching for a cure.

"It was so rare that people just weren't devoting any resources or effort to finding new treatments," Foltz said. "I just decided what I was doing day to day wasn't enough. This cause was so important that it was something I should devote my life to."

Foltz would earn his medical degree at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and served his residency at the University of Washington.

He joined the Swedish Neuroscience Institute and became director of the Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment, a multidisciplinary cancer center where surgeons, oncologists, neurologists and radiologists deliver coordinated care for patients diagnosed with brain tumors.

Foltz was known for his incredible compassion towards his patients, even giving out his cell phone number to each.

"He was an amazing man," Combs said. "There needs to be more people like him."

Foltz diagnosed Combs with brain cancer in 2007. While she was shocked at the time, Combs said Foltz made her feel confident about her treatment options and patiently answered every question she asked.

"It was scary," Combs said. "But to feel like you're with a doctor who you can completely trust it's a big deal. We were so lucky."

Foltz removed Combs' tumor and she has been cancer-free for six years.

Besides being a world-class surgeon, Foltz led a team of reputable scientists at the Ivy Center in research aimed at personalizing medicine for patients and finding a cure for terminal brain cancer. He was awarded grants from every major organization funding brain cancer research including the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Health, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, the Ivy Foundation, the Department of Defense and The Elliott Foundation, among others.

"The amount that has changed at Swedish, and all the research he has done, is incredible," Combs said. "I feel like there is more hope now."

In 2008, Foltz organized the first-ever Seattle Brain Cancer Walk to raise support and awareness for brain cancer and to bring clinical trials to the Pacific Northwest.

Because most brain cancer patients do not live long enough to advocate on their own behalf, Foltz dedicated one day a week strictly to advocating for them.

"At the end of the day the goal is to make this disease go away," Foltz said. "I'm very hopeful that in the near term - the next three to five years - we will see new therapies that will save patients. That's why we work so hard to keep them well and keep them alive."

Anner Charrier met Foltz at the second-annual Brain Cancer Walk in 2009. She said it was hard to miss the friendly man who was high-fiving and hugging every patient there.

"It was never about fundraising, he always talked about how to make it the best day of the year for his patients," Charrier said.

Foltz inspired Charrier so much she started volunteering at the walk and will chair this year's event on Sept. 21.

"[Losing Dr. Foltz] its proof that cancer is indiscriminate," Charrier said. "It doesn't matter how good or decent you are. We not only have to find cures for brain cancer but hopeful our work unlocks answers for all cancers."

Those who know Foltz best say even at the end of his life he was optimistic about what the future holds for brain cancer patients.

"I have the most fulfilling job you could ever imagine," Foltz said. "I take care of patients who are battling a life threatening disease every day and I'm keeping them alive. You can't help but get up every day looking forward to what the future holds in terms of possibilities for these patients."

A concert will be held at Benaroya Hall on July 15 to honor Foltz.