Surfing on the Edge of Life

Oct 29, 2012

Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, seeks challenges in both work and play


Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, lives for a challenge, “otherwise life is boring,” he says. As the Bank of America Endowed Medical Director of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, Dr. Petrelli oversees Delaware’s largest cancer program. Here, professional trials and tribulations are an everyday occurrence. But Dr. Petrelli doesn’t stop pushing his mental and physical limits when he leaves the office. On weekend mornings he heads to the Delaware coast, dons a wetsuit, and tackles whatever waves the Atlantic Ocean churns up—using only a surfboard.


Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD

Member Since: 1983

Specialties: Surgical oncology, clinical trials, gastrointestinal tumors

Institution: Bank of America Endowed Medical Director, Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care

ASCO Activity: Chair-Elect, Publications Committee; Member, Clinical Practice Guidelines Committee, Cancer Research Committee, and Community Research Forum Working Group

AC: What drew you to oncology?

Dr. Petrelli: That’s an easy answer. When I was a junior surgical resident in San Francisco, one of our attending surgeons was a surgeon who trained at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and whose practice only involved patients with cancer. By the time I became a junior resident, I found most of the benign procedures I was taught to be pretty boring. I found the cancer cases extremely challenging, and it was the challenge of those cases that attracted me to the cancer field.

AC: Do you like challenges in other aspects of your life as well?

Dr. Petrelli: I like living on the edge of life. That included the 1960s, but we can’t go into that.

AC: Is surfing a challenge for you?

Dr. Petrelli: Surfing used to be a challenge when I was younger, but now I’m smarter about when to do it and when not to do it. I’m not catching 15- to 20-foot waves anymore.

AC: How did you begin surfing?

Dr. Petrelli: My parents were big water recreation people. My dad was a recreational fisherman, and my mom was a great ocean swimmer. So when I was small, I was exposed to the ocean at a very early age. Around the age of 15 or 16, I got interested in surfing because it was new at the time on the East Coast, and it was extremely challenging. Prior to that, the only ocean sports were body surfing and fishing. Where I learned to surf at Montauk, [New York], was even more challenging, especially Ditch Plains Beach, which is one of the best surfing locations in the country.

AC: What do you like best about the sport?

Dr. Petrelli: There’s something magical about being on a board in the ocean when it’s quiet—especially in early morning when the beaches aren’t busy—watching the sun in the lower sky begin to rise on a beautiful summer day with an offshore breeze. There’s something very peaceful about that. I think I’ve appreciated that in the last 10 to 12 years more so than when I was younger.

AC: Can you describe what surfing is like for the uninitiated?

Dr. Petrelli: It’s a rush. It’s better than any drug; you don’t have any side effects and it won’t kill you. It can hurt you, but you’d have to be stupid for it to kill you. It’s a peaceful rush. When you catch a wave and you get a fairly long ride and you’re maneuvering on the wave, it’s challenging, it’s exciting, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment.

AC: Do you bring anyone with you when you surf?

Dr. Petrelli: Entering the ocean is like operating in somebody’s abdomen. You have to have respect for the abdomen. You have to have respect for all the organs within the abdomen or else you’re going to get in trouble. So you have to have respect for the ocean. There’s an unwritten law to always be around someone else in the water. In this stage of my career, I do surf by myself, but I always make sure other surfers are around.

AC: Any advice for the first-time surfer?

Dr. Petrelli: The first mistake everyone makes when they try surfing is starting on a shortboard. You want to start on a longboard—nine or 10 feet. You want to start with small waves. You can start after the wave breaks and ride what we call “the soup” in. It’s a motion of paddling out, paddling on the wave, and rising to your feet. The key is balance. The best way to get your balance is on a longboard and riding the wave after it breaks, not trying to ride it while it’s breaking. If you start on a longboard, you’ll surprise yourself.

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