Artist and Survivor Jacob Riley-Wasserman Inspires to Benefit Abramson Cancer Center

Jacob Riley-Wasserman has an eye for the interesting and unusual.

After completing his studies in furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jacob planned to start a graduate program at New York University when he began having difficulty swallowing. He was only 22.

Jacob Riley Wasserman“I had an endoscopy at Penn Medicine that summer, and went back to New York to begin to prepare for grad school,” Jacob remembers. “It was just before I was to start school again that I learned I had esophageal cancer.”

Jacob returned to his home in New Jersey to receive proton therapy and chemotherapy at Penn Medicine.

It was at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center where Jacob became fascinated by the treatment process. “I was amazed that this beam of proton radiation was hitting my tumor without radiating to other areas of my body,” says Jacob.

As a designer and artist, Jacob was especially drawn to the compensator blocks used to direct the proton beam to the treatment area.

“Compensator blocks are custom made to fit the patient and their particular tumor,” says Jim Metz, MD, vice chair of radiation oncology at Penn. “Before proton therapy begins, the blocks are created based on scans of the patient's anatomy and tumor site. Each time they come in for therapy, the compensator blocks are placed in the beam line to shape the distribution of protons over the target area while sparing exposure to normal tissue.”

Jacob was so fascinated with the compensator block, he asked to take his home. Then, he had another idea.

“I thought it would be a cool thing to start offering to patients,” says Jacob. “So we are beginning a program in which patients take their blocks home after a small donation is made to patient education at the Abramson Cancer Center.”

Today, Jacob's tumor in his esophagus is gone, but he is still undergoing treatment at the Abramson Cancer Center.

While on leave from school, he is staying busy in his workshop.

Jacob Riley Wasserman

His most successful design is the Star Spangled Spatula. Crafted of solid walnut and stainless steel, the over-sized grilling spatula has been highlighted in national publications like the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, and Fast Company. Jacob licensed it with New York based firm, Areaware, and it has been sold across the country in home stores including Williams Sonoma, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and shops in some of the nation's prominent museums. There's also a smaller vinyl version for kitchen use.

With the spatula's popularity, Jacob has decided to donate a portion of the percentage he receives from its sale to the Abramson Cancer Center.

“My cancer diagnosis has been a huge blow but I've been trying to keep as busy as possible,” he says. “I like to be working and make stuff. I work with my hands. This has been my opportunity to be on top of that. I don't just have cancer, get treatment, and sit at home. I've been using this as an opportunity to create - the perspective on that is interesting.”

To purchase a Star Spangled Spatula, or to learn more about Jacob, visit

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The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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