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Spirit of a Farmer

“How can we do this better?” Asked Dr. John Lee’s parents as they sat around the kitchen table in their northern Minnesota home discussing how to improve the quality of their dairy herd. It was a conversation his family had every year, always pioneering for something better, envisioning possibilities. At the time, John had no idea that one day he’d take that passion for innovation and spirit of teamwork to champion leading research on a deadly disease: head and neck cancer.

“Anyone who grows up on a dairy farm knows, there’s a couple of things you value after. One, you get to work with your mom and dad as a team. The other thing you learn is that it’s 24/7. There was never a day where we had a day off. Somehow that gets instilled in you and stays with you for life,” Dr. Lee says.

John went on to study at Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa, where his passion for improving survival rates of Head & Neck cancer patients fueled his work as a physician, researcher and professor. Today, he heads Sanford’s Head & Neck Cancer Research program, determined to find a better way to treat cancer and advance survival rates for the ninth most common cancer in America.

Spirit of Innovation

“Another thing that really influenced me is that both my parents were educated – my dad in agriculture and my mom in nursing. They took an older herd and brought it up to a high quality herd. It wasn’t just ‘do the same thing year after year,’ it was ‘how can we do better this year.’ Those things stick with you and carry on with you your whole life,” Dr. Lee says. “I ask myself those same questions every day. How can we do this better? How can we improve cancer therapy?”

Dr. Lee and his team at Sanford’s Head & Neck Cancer research is currently studying how head and neck squamous cell cancer may be caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in up to 25 percent of cases. They’re investigating how the body’s immune system can recognize HPV-induced cellular changes, molecular changes and how cells respond. Clinical trials are underway that will improve cancer therapy by selectively treating sub-types of head and neck cancer by immunotherapy.

“When I finished med school, there hadn’t been an improvement in head/neck cancer in 30 years. About 50 percent of the patients died. So I saw that there was a real opportunity to advance. It comes to a point where if you can change things you can drastically help people and this is one area where you can really impact a change with scientific understanding, new drugs and therapies,” Dr. Lee says. “It just became my interest and passion to tie those things together.”


“My work today isn’t all that different than dairy farming,” says Dr. Lee, smiling. “I mean in many ways, you have to build a team. In both the clinical and scientific aspect, you have to build a team that provides outstanding care. It’s not just you as a surgeon or head/neck oncologist, it’s other specialists, your nursing staff, all the support staff, dieticians, physical therapists, dentists, even hospital administration – you really all have to be working toward the same goal.”

Dr. Lee leads Sanford’s Head & Neck Cancer clinical program and its research team. “So it’s combining those two which is really a challenge and every day that’s what I do. At the same time, I’m still a clinician treating patients. I think the lessons I learned growing up on the dairy farm inspired my curiosity in science, and my parents instilled a strong service orientation in us. Both my brother and I are physicians and we’ve both chosen to go on and not just practice medicine but try to move things forward in medicine.” Dr. Lee’s brother specializes in biopharma medicine and works for a national pharmaceutical company.

“For me, building a team here at Sanford means building outstanding clinical treatment where our survival rates are world class and better than the national average. That involves not only me, but everyone on the team. A lot of places offer exceptional care, but Sanford gives me the opportunity to carry on ground-breaking research at the same time,” says Dr. Lee.

“If I can be part of the team that improves survival rates by even 10 percent, well, I think I’d be a success. That’s the kind of thing that drives me.”

Posted Date: July 2011