By Steve Blanchard - May 17, 2021
For nearly 14 years, Dr. Catherine Lee has worked as a surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center. She focuses on breast cancer patients and is fascinated by new technologies and procedures that can help make a patient’s life better.
“I look at the last three years or so and I’m amazed at how far we’ve come,” Lee said. “The fundamentals are the same, of course, but today we have medications and technology used in operations that wouldn’t have been technically feasible in 2001 when I graduated from med school. We just didn’t have the tools we have now.”
One of those tools that has Lee most excited is the use of fluorescent cancer markers during surgery to help identify microscopic cancer cells in real time. This new technology may reduce the need for repeated or extensive surgeries.
Treating patients successfully has always been a goal of Lee’s, even when she was a child. She grew up in a family of physicians and admits that it was predetermined that she would have a career in medicine.
“The stereotype of hard driving Asian parents is true in my case,” Lee laughed. “I am the oldest of three daughters and I was the sacrificial lamb that went into medicine so they could do something else. I was always expected to be a doctor whether I wanted it or not. Fortunately, I embraced it.”
Lee’s father is a retired anesthesiologist and her mother still practices internal medicine where Lee grew up in Ohio. Her parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 1970s as part of a massive influx of medical professionals from Asia during that time to fulfill a need, and almost all those families have remained in the U.S.
“I joke that I am an Asian mutt,” Lee said. “I’m of mixed heritage. My dad is ethnically Chinese, and my mother is half Chinese and half Filipino, but they grew up in the Philippines and spoke several languages at home. So, my childhood was certainly a melting pot.”
Lee was born in New York City but grew up in Cincinnati. She experienced cancer diagnoses in her family and that piqued her interest in this area of medicine. She’s the only member of her family who works with cancer patients.
“The intellectual challenge of cancer is fascinating,” Lee said. “We don’t necessarily have a genetic preponderance for cancer, but I have seen the effects of cancer from the patient side and the physician side.”
Since moving to Florida she and her husband have had two children, now 8 and 11. Lee tries to incorporate some of her cultural heritage into their upbringing, although she said her parenting style is different than her parents.
"My husband is not Asian, so the culture my children are growing up in is different."- Dr. Catherine Lee, Breast Oncology Program
“I like to think I’ve been able to integrate the most helpful parts of parenting to be successful while softening up on some of the other things that weren’t so successful for me,” Lee said. “My husband is not Asian, so the culture my children are growing up in is different. The foods we eat and the books we read are ways we keep the kids connected to their heritage. Otherwise, my kids wouldn’t be exposed to the foods or traditions. I’m hopeful that when we can travel, we can expose them to more Asian culture.”
When she’s not parenting, Lee is helping breast cancer patients live their best lives. She says the patients she’s worked with during her career have always been grateful for her expertise and gladly accept her help.
“Doctors in general, no matter their background, have some privilege,” Lee said. “People come to you for help and that supersedes some of the barriers or obstacles that may otherwise be in place.”
Health care providers in general have been particularly stressed over the past year, Lee said, and the appreciation expressed by the public has helped. But the pandemic has showed flaws in the system that a lot of doctors are still dealing with. Lee says she feels protected from a lot of those flaws and stresses with her position at Moffitt.
“Time goes by so quickly. I can’t quite believe how long I’ve been here,” Lee said. “I’m lucky to be in a place like Moffitt. I get a lot more satisfaction day-to-day than a lot of my colleagues currently practicing other fields of medicine. That makes me sad. Medicine is a service that is rewarding and that’s exactly how I feel – rewarded.”