Skip to Content

NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.

Healthy You

Dr. Catherine Pesce, Breast Cancer Surgeon: Motivated by Her Mother, Inspired by Her Patients

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 3:13 PM

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.

What 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.

In the 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.