Dr. Lee, you are a world-renowned surgical oncologist and a respected member of the medical community. What was your reason for choosing specialty in breast cancer? Can you please share with us what keeps you motivated throughout your career?
On average, during the 1970s and ‘80s in Korea, there were only about 10 females among 100 students in the medical school. When I entered medical school in 1980, there were about 25 females admitted to the school, which was considerably high. However, the number of female students was still too low compared to males due to the fact that it was a predominantly male profession. Despite the fact that there was no precedent for a woman to become a surgeon at that time, I wanted to challenge myself and pursue a career in medicine. Fortunately, because of my academic performance in high school, I was able to study in the field of my choice.
I originally hoped to study internal medicine because I wanted to study the body in a broader spectrum rather than to become a specialist in a certain field. During my 4th year in internal medicine, I learned that although internal medicine is a rewarding field, it generally requires long-term treatments. Instead, I wanted to take a more immediate approach to help patients. During this time, my senior colleague suggested me to go into general surgery, and I decided then to divert my career path to become a surgeon.
Throughout my career, I always strived to be the best and first in my field, which has led me to become the first female surgeon from my medical school, the Korea University Medical College. Ever since I studied at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in the U.S. during the mid-1990s, I’ve focused my skills on improving the areas of breast cancer research. I always wanted to be a fully dedicated breast cancer specialist who always prioritizes patient care, and I am fortunate enough to be recognized as one of the best in my field. When it comes to patient care, I try to allow my patients to feel comfortable as if they are casually conversing with their friends or family. Creating a friendly environment for patients is an important responsibility for physicians. I believe that fundamentals of supporting patients fight cancer lie not only giving them healthy lifestyle recommendations but also providing good energy and positivity.
“ I always wanted to be a fully dedicated breast cancer specialist who always prioritizes patient care ”
As a successful physician with more than 30 years of experience, you may have gone through various obstacles. Can you share some of the most difficult moments in your career?
I started at the department of surgery, but soon I realized how hard it was for a woman to work in this field. Unlike today, I was the only woman staff in the department, so they did not have a proper women’s locker room. There were even times when I was being acknowledged differently from other male colleagues, and occasionally, my competency was undermined when working along with them. Every day was nerve-racking and I cried in the restroom in solitude, but I managed to endure for a year. However, it was not long before I encountered another obstacle. I wanted to be a professor, but despite my high GPA and scores, no one dared to hire a female professor because it was a very rare case to have a female faculty in their institution.
After thinking long and hard, I decided to study abroad in the States. This was when my first child was four and my second was only six months old. Despite my internal conflicts and others’ attempts to dissuade me, my mind was set on going to the U.S. to continue my studies. As in any field of medicine, the competition intensifies as you move up in your career, and there are far more obstacles along the way for a female surgeon. Every time I faced hardships, I thought of the future of female surgeons. I wanted to pave the way for them, and such determination helped me to overcome these obstacles.
You have become the president of the National Cancer Center (NCC). What are your principles and philosophies in leading one of the world’s largest cancer center? How would you distinguish NCC from other institutions?
When I gave my inauguration speech, I promised my colleagues at National Cancer Center (NCC) Korea that I will make positive changes for our organization, our government, and eventually the global public health.
The National Cancer Center Hospital recognizes the importance of prevention and early detection for cancer and provides specialized cancer check-ups through its Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Center. Equipped with the stateof-the-art technologies such as colonoscopy, endoscopy, 64 channel CT, PET/CT and 3T MRI, the cancer specialists at NCC Hospital strive to satisfy the patients’ various needs through preemptive strategies.
We also provide quality patient care services at our modern facilities, using cutting edge equipments such as proton beam therapy, PET/CT, IMRT, tomotherapy, etc. After six years of preparation, we have successfully installed a proton beam therapy system in 2007. This technology radiates a higher dose of beam directly to tumor sites without causing harm to surrounding normal tissues and organs. The proton radiation therapy uses x-rays or electron beams to destroy cancer cells, but unlike X-rays, proton beams release most of their energy when they reach the tumor cells. The patient does not feel any pain during the therapy, and there are minimal side effects. Thus, it allows the patient to quickly return to normal, daily life after treatment compared to those treated with conventional X-rays.
In addition, as a leading center for developing and disseminating evidence-based, standard cancer-care guidelines, the NCC Hospital plays a coordinating role in Korea. The NCC Hospital has established a new system that enables 60 clinical staff from the hospital to engage in rapid translational research discoveries at the NCC Research Institute and bring about promising clinical interventions.
At the NCC Hospital, I believe that it does not take one but our whole staff to bring our hospital to where it is today. I am truly grateful for the hard work of those who take initiatives toward innovation. Our employees are dedicated to prepare for the future with a youthful spirit, constantly learning and facing challenges without fear of failure. We will open new roads in scientific innovation through our continuing collaborative efforts. We still have more to accomplish along the road, but I am confident that the goals of the National Cancer Center will soon be achieved in the future.
You have conducted hundreds of research and served as an author and coauthor in many research papers. As an eminent opinion leader, what are some of the major contributions you have made for breast cancer surgery?
I am a general surgeon who specializes in breast cancer and breast reconstruction surgeries. I am currently involved in 500 surgeries every year. I have also written 128 research papers, hold 5 patents and contributed in the technology transfer for one of those patents. I have been very fortunate to make contributions toward breast cancer surgery in Korea by implementing breast conserving surgery (BCS) and sentinel lymph node biopsy that minimize surgical morbidity. In the past, aggressive surgical treatments were heavily focused on the survival rate of breast cancer patients without much aesthetic consideration for patients’ self-esteem after their surgery. However, as a woman, I believe preserving as much healthy tissue is important for postoperative self-esteem and minimizing the psychological impact of breast cancer patients. Thus, I focused on the surveillance of lymph node dissection to minimize the surgical site.
“ To become a good leader, some sacrifices have to be made in order to enhance the organization ”
Dr. Lee, you are the first surgeon among the female graduates of the Korea University Medical School, the first female director in the 60-year history of the Korean Surgical Society, and the first female president of the National Cancer Center Korea (NCC) since its opening. Do you have any words of advice to share with other female colleagues?
To become a good leader, some sacrifices have to be made in order to enhance the organization. I encourage more women to take leadership because I believe that women have the ability to understand individuals’ needs, and direct and harmonize different interests of others. Leadership should be established at home, and it is important to teach and make aware of gender equality to our children. There are many women who have inspired me to become who I am today in many different aspects. I am greatly thankful for my mother-in-law, who helped me in child-raising and supporting my family while I was working towards my career.
I am also inspired by Dr. Monica Morrow, who is a breast cancer surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Moreover, I admire all the artists in the areas of literature and arts who constantly challenge the social norms. We must educate our children and ourselves to set goals in moving forward when faced with challenges and never let societal standards ruin our passion for success.
I want to tell my female colleagues that they should never give up on their dreams even if the challenges facing them may seem unfair right now. If they continue to make efforts and take incremental steps toward achieving their dreams, a moment of opportunity will come someday. I do not want to force my female colleagues to follow my path or try to imitate what I have done so far. Instead, I suggest that they walk shoulder-to-shoulder, and I offer to be right beside them when they need me.
What are some of the major issues or trends happening in the field? Under your leadership, what is the NCC doing to address these issues and how will this impact the future of public health in Korea?
The National Cancer Center is currently focused on the impact of big data on public health. We are currently working to establish an open platform where we can share and route cancer-related big data. The application of this big data will allow us to accurately examine patients and will eventually reduce medical expenses.
In addition, sharing this big data with other medical institutions will create an efficient network and a hub for connecting the three essential elements for scientific progress: research, treatment and policies. In recent years, I have been conducting research through big data analysis that will establish a basis for national policies. Such policies will grant patients with a life-long plan for cancer prevention, screening, and treatment as well as cancer survivor management.
We will ensure that our center becomes a testing site for new treatment technologies. We have research resources such as the NCC Biobank, the Animal Sciences Branch, the Omics Core Lab, and the GMP pharmaceutical laboratories that are accessible to any researchers.
At NCC, we recently completed our own data warehouse and search portal for clinical research in order to systematically combine and manage data. Currently, we have 490,000 patient information in our database that has been categorized. Although the access to data from other institutions is prohibited due to privacy-related issues, the National Assembly is currently in discussion for an amendment to the Cancer Control Act. If this amendment passes, the big data will be available to be shared among different institutions, and I believe it will significantly enhance public health and cancer research in Korea.
WKMJ has readers from over 10 countries globally. Please share your final words with our readers.
If there are those who are currently struggling in difficult environments, I hope that my story would reassure them in their endeavors. I strongly believe that perseverance and positive attitude will eventually win the day, and that those small battles of each day will eventually make a difference in the world.
Also, for medical professionals, I would like to emphasize the importance of relationships. It is important for both the patients and their families to remain strong during treatment. Therefore, I hope that all medical professionals will strive to support their patients and their families, not only with medical support, but also with encouragement and positive attitude so that unbearable illnesses can be endured and overcome with confidence.
Eun Sook Lee, MD, PhD
President of the Korean National Cancer Center
Dr. Eun Sook Lee has devoted herself to the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer for more than 30 years as a surgical oncologist. She has also performed translational research to provide a guideline on high quality diagnosis and the selection of the appropriate local therapy to be used in cancer treatment that varies with the individual cancer type and the site of involvement. Dr. Lee obtained necessary knowledge and laboratory experience from her postdoctoral fellowship in MD Anderson Cancer Center in 1994 and as visiting assistant professor in Northwestern University from 1998 to 2000. Dr. Lee returned to Korea in order to concentrate on the treatment of breast cancer and was Head of the Breast Cancer Center at the National Cancer Center Korea from 2000 to 2008. In 2017, Dr. Lee became the president of Korean National Cancer Center. She has published almost hundred clinical and basic research papers relating development of therapeutics and optimization of clinical diagnosis.