Catherine Pesce, MD, Surgical Oncology, discovered her passion for surgery as a pre-med major in college. It was during her second year as
a surgical resident, sadly after her mother died of colon cancer, that she knew where her heart would take her: surgical oncology.
Here, she tells us why she was drawn to specializing in breast cancer and describes the personal
impact her patients have on her:
(Click on Dr. Pesce's image to listen to her interview on NorthShore Health & Wellness.)
When did your interest in medicine develop? In school, math and science always came easiest to me. So, as a student at Duke University, I took a chance and enrolled in pre-med. My sophomore year, Duke offered a program for pre-med students that gave them the opportunity to shadow any kind
of physician, so, randomly, I chose cardiothoracic surgery. What an opportunity to watch heart surgery every Friday!
After ten minutes in the operating room, I was hooked. That was in that moment that I absolutely fell in
love with surgery. I just couldn’t get over the fact that surgeries like that happen every day, and I knew that my passion for surgery would only grow over time.
What led you to surgical oncology, specifically breast
cancer? During my general surgery residency, I was exposed to every surgical specialty in order to figure out what felt “right” for me as a future surgeon. But it was during my second year in residency that my mother died of colon
cancer; and I knew from that point on, my heart was in oncology.
As I was exposed to the many different operations we completed for various types of cancer, I was naturally drawn to breast cancer patients. As a woman, I felt an innate
ability to relate to other women. More than anything, however, I felt so rewarded by the huge impact I could have on a breast cancer patient’s life. When breast cancer is caught early, it’s easily treatable and regularly curable. There is nothing
more rewarding than being involved in that process. Having a patient beat the disease and move on with her life, which, unfortunately, is not always the case with other types of cancers, is truly what brings me the most joy as a physician.
is the biggest challenge of working in surgical oncology? Unfortunately, in my line of work I have to share bad news nearly every day. While no woman wants to hear she has breast cancer, I make it my priority to comfort, encourage and clearly
communicate our plan to fight the disease so we can work together.
What do you find most inspiring about your patients? I have been blown away by the grace and humility patients exude during their cancer
treatment. More than once, I’ve actually had a patient say, “I’m glad this happened. It has made me re-evaluate my life; realize what’s important, how loved I am and how important it is to take care of myself.” It brings me to
tears witnessing such strength and dignity.
What’s new now that many women might not know as far as treatment and surgery for breast cancer? I am most excited about a new surgical procedure we have recently
adopted at NorthShore to remove breast tumors. When a cancer is discovered from a patient’s mammogram and cannot be felt with the human hand, traditionally, a wire is placed into the breast by a radiologist and then, in the operating room, the wire is
used by the surgeon to guide where the tumor to be excised is located in the breast. The wire method has many disadvantages, including patient satisfaction; the possibility of wire displacement; long procedure times on the day of surgery; as well as wire inaccuracy
that sometimes requires a surgeon perform multiple surgeries in order to properly remove the tumor.
Recently, we have begun using radioactive seeds to locate cancers instead of wires. The seeds are implanted into the breast cancer
with no radioactivity risk to the patient. The seeds can be inserted by the radiologist up to five days before surgery, which eliminates the logistical challenges between the radiology department and operating room schedules.
operating room, the surgeon uses a handheld gamma probe to guide excision of the tumor and seed in an easier, more precise manner. Already, prospective clinical trials have shown a decrease in the need for multiple operations compared to the wire localization
method. In addition, no other hospital in the state of Illinois currently offers the use of radioactive seeds. NorthShore is a pioneer and standout in the use of this advanced technological surgical technique.
What makes the
NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center unique? The treatment of breast cancer requires a multidisciplinary approach, and the Kellogg Cancer Center has a system in place to accomplish exactly that. We can collaboratively walk each patient step-by-step
through the process. From a patient’s first abnormal mammogram and biopsy to surgery, consultations with medical oncology, radiation oncology and survivorship, the Kellogg Cancer Center has an experienced, collaborative team of specialists who provides
a comprehensive and compassionate approach to breast cancer treatment for every patient.
What advice would you give women newly diagnosed with breast cancer? I want newly diagnosed women to know that they are
not alone. While this journey will have its ups and downs, they have a team of doctors who are there for them every step of the way.
Cancer runs in her family but at only 24, Kayla Redig’s family and doctors weren’t
ready to believe that cancer could be responsible for her sleepless nights, exhaustion and days of just “feeling off.” Kayla, however, knew there was something wrong. After finding a lump in her breast, she pushed for further testing. When the
diagnosis came back as breast cancer, she was upset but not surprised.
From the beginning, Kayla told her family that she didn’t want to hate the chemo treatments that would be responsible for saving her life, so she decided to celebrate
them instead. For Kayla and her friends and family, chemo became Theme-o, themed parties and celebrations surrounding each treatment. Fittingly, superheroes came first, followed by a prom-themed chemo session and even a Blackhawks-themed parade on the way
to her final treatment. Everyone dressed up and everyone celebrated.
Here, Kayla tells us why she found it so important to celebrate during breast cancer treatment and how the love she felt during treatment gave her the strength to fight cancer
and embrace a new direction in life:
Where did your journey to diagnosis begin? Cancer runs in my family. A year before I was diagnosed, I had genetic testing done and found out I had the BRCA 2 gene. So I knew I had a genetic
disposition and a family history of it but I never gave it much thought. A few weeks before my diagnosis, I was always complaining about how tired I felt. My friends noticed how “off” I was and thought I was depressed. I wasn’t sleeping through
the night because I had intense night sweats; I figured that my lack of sleep was to blame for my tiredness. About two weeks after that, I found a lump in my left breast.
You were only 24 when you sought out a doctor’s advice. What
were you being told by family, friends and doctors before you received your diagnosis?When I found the lump I called my mom and two of my friends but no one was worried. One even called me dramatic and told me to go to sleep. The more friends
I told the more I heard, “Get it checked out but I’m sure it’s nothing.”
When I first saw my gynecologist she was hesitant to prescribe further testing because of my age but decided to move forward because of my family
history. When I had the ultrasound done, they were able to rule out a cyst but, again, they hesitated before doing a mammogram because of my age. About a minute into my mammogram the tech said, “You need to see one of our breast surgeons immediately.”
First thing the next morning, I was with Dr. Katherine Yao having a biopsy. She was the first person who didn’t
shuffle me along. Instead, she said, “I’ll be honest with you—this looks and feels a lot like cancer to me.”
What went through your head when you were told it was breast cancer after all?If you’re in touch with your body, I think you just know when something is wrong. So that combined with how off I’d
been feeling … I can’t really say I was surprised. Tears fell immediately but I wasn’t surprised. I remember being driven to where my parents were and talking to Dr.Yao on the phone, hearing more information and what to expect. When I finally
got to my parents, I burst into tears all over again. It wasn’t until I heard my mom say that they were going to move back to Illinois right away that the reality of the situation really hit me. You have to move across the country for me? Whoa. And seeing
my father break down in tears … I started seeing the impact my health was having on others and all I could think about was the damage this disease was causing.
But you wanted to try to keep positive, so where did the idea for Theme-o
come from? After I reached the halfway point with chemo, my health really started to deteriorate. My body was worn out. I was an emotional mess and my spirit was in a bad place. From day one, I had said that I never wanted to hate chemo because
chemo was my partner in the fight. But suddenly I was dreading each treatment and I wanted to stop going. I wanted to stop fighting. With what little energy I had left, I realized I had two choices: Give up or make a drastic change.
Up until then,
all of my treatments had involved at least six friends or family members spending time with me but that was just talking. I decided I needed to make my treatments into parties and, like all good parties, they had to have themes. Chemo became Theme-o. It was
during the darkest time in my life that Theme-o was born.
How did you decide on themes?I shared the idea with my friends and family and told them to start throwing themes at me. We formed a solid list from that. My father
insisted that “Superheroes” be the first theme because he had seen a Superman costume with built-in muscles and wanted to wear it. Before each treatment, we would have the next theme decided.
What were the reactions from people
at your appointments?When we showed up at the hospital dressed as superheroes everyone was amused but also quite confused. There were many “okay … why?” looks thrown our way before we explained the situation. A lot of people
poked their heads in my room because they had to see for themselves. We took pictures with other patients; it was fun to see them light up when they saw us. Once people heard what we were doing, the next question was always: “What are you wearing next
It was amazing to see the community that formed around Theme-o. My whole school participated, many folks at the hospital and friends and family from all over the world dressed up to show their support. I don’t think many people
look forward to chemo but I sure grew to. We had a lot of fun with it!
you most about the entire journey, from diagnosis and now to recovery?The whole experience was a lesson of the power of love. It’s amazing what people can accomplish when we all work together and are fueled by love. From my family to complete
strangers, I had everyone rallying alongside me. This has been the most challenging path I’ve ever found myself on but I was able to see it through because of all of the love I was given. I never felt like I was doing it alone. The beautiful thing about
the strength of love is it shows no sign of running out. I am still fueled by love every day.
What did you find most challenging about the experience?The most challenging thing for me was how my family and others I love were/are
still affected by this. I hated seeing them suffer because of my suffering. I hate thinking of all the tears that were shed on my behalf. A lot of lives were changed because of this.
What advice would you give to other women facing
a breast cancer diagnosis?Find ways to celebrate yourself. Your body is being dragged through the gutter and will undergo a ton of changes in a very short period of time. I created a “Pretty Committee” that was in charge of making
sure I still felt beautiful and feminine throughout. Get a makeover, take a Look Good, Feel Better class, buy something sparkly—you’re still beautiful and you’re still you. Little earrings and cute pajama bottoms can go a long way.
Along with celebrating you, celebrate everything else too. Every little benchmark you hit or appointment you get through is worth celebrating. We had a Christmas in July party to celebrate finishing my first round of chemo and a big dinner at the halfway
point. I had a pre-op party and a post-radiation blow out. No matter how small or silly it may seem, celebrate it! Make a big deal out of every moment you get through. People will be happy to join you. If you can’t find joy, create it.
next? What’s happening now? What do you hope to achieve?I just had my final reconstruction surgery at the end of September and it feels amazing knowing I don’t have more surgeries looming. Before surgery I took a new job with a company
based in Los Angeles called Reimagine and am so excited to resume work with them once I have recovered. Reimagine offers an evidence-based, online live class that helps patients and caregivers take
their lives back from cancer. They have built an entire community of support to help people thrive in the face of adversity. I knew early on that I wanted to surround myself with other patients and survivors and change the experience of cancer for every life
it touches. It’s incredible to have found others who wake up every morning wanting to do the same. I’m very blessed to have a career that is fueled not only by life experience but also love. Every bit of love I’m given I try to pour back
into the community of survivors, fighters and caregivers.
For more information on Reimagine, click here.
This October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, help us spread the word about the importance of early detection and prevention. Yearly mammograms can help identify breast cancer in its early, treatable stages and various lifestyle
changes may help reduce your risk of developing the disease.
NorthShore University HealthSystem has created a breast cancer infographic
that includes a brief history of the disease, risk factors and preventative measures. Click on the image below to view our full breast cancer infographic and find out what you can do now to reduce your risk.