Thrive by IU Health

June 01, 2021

Drawn by audacity and people: Dr. Kelvin Lee leads the Cancer Center

Drawn by audacity and people: Dr. Kelvin Lee leads the Cancer Center

Kelvin Lee, MD, believes there’s a pretty direct line from “that’s crazy” to hope.

Dr. Lee was named in October as the new Director of the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Cancer Institute, where he is jointly employed by Indiana University Health and the IU School of Medicine. Dr. Lee said he was drawn to the post in part by the audacious goals of the Center and Institute. In an area of medicine in which the word “cure” is seldom used, IU proclaimed its intention to cure three types of cancer: triple negative breast cancer, pediatric sarcoma and multiple myeloma.

“The fact that they said this so prominently attracted me,” Dr. Lee says. “This is a boldness you don’t often see in the cancer field.” It’s also a boldness that used to be answered with, “That’s crazy,” he adds.

Dr. Lee is no stranger to being told “that’s crazy.” As a high school student, he applied for a special University of Michigan program that would award him both a medical degree and undergraduate degree in six years. But when he received the letter inviting him to schedule an interview, it was curiously addressed to, “Dear _____.” His outraged mother called and berated the secretary who was arranging the interviews for not extending the courtesy of using his name. Flustered, the secretary granted Dr. Lee an interview, which he did well enough on to earn him one of the 10 available out-of-state program spots. Six years later, when Dr. Lee graduated second in his class, school officials admitted that the salutation was not the only mistake about his letter … it was also supposed to be a rejection letter.

Upon that misunderstanding, Dr. Lee has built a career as a widely respected clinician, researcher and leader. He came to IU Health from the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, where for 15 years he held the Jacobs Family Chair of Immunology.

The only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center in the state of Indiana, the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center that Dr. Lee now leads provides care with a holistic and collaborative approach, pulling together diverse teams of experts who can address every aspect of a patient’s care, including physicians, pharmacists, dietitians, chaplains and more. The NCI designation recognizes the major commitment to scientific excellence, the discovery and development of new approaches, and the education of healthcare professionals and the public.

This kind of approach has transformed the way people think of cancer and cancer hospitals. “We have gone from cancer hospitals being a place to die, to cancer hospitals being a place to live and have a long life,” Dr. Lee says.

Instrumental in this transformation, Dr. Lee says, are the people behind it: the professionals, patients and donors.

The clinical and research professionals at IU Health and the IU School of Medicine played a big part in drawing Dr. Lee to Indiana. “I was just blown away by the team that’s here, the talent that’s here,” he says. “We’ve got some of the brightest people on the planet thinking about ways to actually go after cancer.”

As much as Dr. Lee praises the IU Health team’s talent and expertise, he is perhaps even more impressed by their compassion, selfless dedication and a prevailing generosity of spirit that considers patient success to be the highest reward.

Similarly, Dr. Lee is moved by the generosity of people who provide philanthropic support to IU Health. “I’ve never run into a donor who is giving because they expect something in return,” Dr. Lee says. “Every donor I have met who is involved in philanthropy gives from their heart. They give because they believe this is their role to make the world better.”

If you would like to support the IU Health Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center team’s work to create hope for people diagnosed with cancer, please contact Dana Shank, senior development officer at IU Health Foundation.