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Five Questions for Brian Roberts

Brian Roberts, 47, is CEO of Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator. At the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's National Show this past April, he learned from his wife, Aileen, 51, that she might have breast cancer. Last week, the Roberts family, including Comcast founder and chairman Ralph Roberts, announced it was donating $15 million to the University of Pennsylvania to create a facility to treat cancer patients with focused beams of radiation. Multichannel News editor in chief Tom Steinert-Threlkeld talked with Roberts on the eve of the naming of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center.

MCN: Hopefully, this therapy will head off [fatalities] in your family and other families.

Brian Roberts: This is really cool technology. Think about a bull's eye and a bow-and-arrow [target]. The cancer's in the middle, but [conventional radiation] doesn't know about good cells and bad cells, so it just kills everything in its wake. With proton radiation, you only hit the bull's eye. So if you take a prostate or you take a brain tumor or you take a stomach and there are other organs right nearby, you [normally] have collateral damage and bad side effects. Or you can't radiate. Particularly with children, where the organs are so small.

MCN: What about breast cancer?

BR: In my wife's cancer, it was near her heart. But, at the moment, it's not really one of the cancers. There is so much more area around it. They have [other] ways to radiate around it.

MCN: Why Philadelphia?

BR: A proton reactor is the size of a football field and it has to be thirty feet underground. In places like Sloan-Kettering [in New York] or Johns Hopkins [in Baltimore] or other places in urban areas on the East Coast, they can't build an underground facility to do that without other things getting in its way.

MCN: When did this idea come up?

BR: My Dad got an honorary degree from his alma mater and my alma mater [the University of Pennsylvania] two years ago. We had been talking about doing things in the way of philanthropy that would make a difference. So about a year ago, we went to Penn and asked, what would change Penn the institution. … As fate would have it, my Dad's on the Penn Medicine board and one David Cohen of Comcast is chair of the Penn medical board. …

One of the things that is neat about this is this will be the only proton radiation center at a teaching hospital and at a research hospital, so there will be a chance to have research done with this center, not just treatments of patients.

Then, what they did is, it's a joint project with the children's hospital. And Children's Hospital said this is really great technology for kids. Since all their organs are small, [controlling] the damage is so much more important.

Well, it so happens my wife is on the board of the Children's Hospital; and [Comcast president] Steve Burke is the next chairman of the Children's Hospital; and, my wife goes and gets breast cancer, in the middle of these conversations.

MCN: What's the story there?

BR: Aileen had spent three hours one day talking with Amy Banse, [Comcast's president of interactive media], who was openly sharing her treatments and her [own] diagnosis. Aileen went home and said, maybe I'm imagining this, but I think I found a lump. That may have saved her life. And I was standing in the lobby of the hotel at the NCTA convention, when my cellphone rang and Aileen [told me]… I thought, maybe she's imagining it, but I said get right in to the doctor.

Two days later, she went in, she did a mammogram. It showed nothing. Fortunately, a really smart lady said let's do an ultrasound and, boom, that day, she was malignant. But the great thing the doctors did is say, this is the luckiest day of your life. …

This makes me feel lucky. This is helping Penn, this is helping Philly, it's working with my wife and my parents, it's helping kids, and it's new technology. It's like everything I care about in life.