‘Servant Leader’ Takes Helm at Integrative Oncology Center

Richard T. Lee spearheads the new Cherng Family Center for Integrative Oncology at City of Hope. He shares his path to this unique position

Richard T. Lee, M.D., comes across as someone full of surprises: a fascinating mixture of unexpected elements.

His family heritage traces to Taiwan, but he’s a product of Illinois farm country.

He’s a third-generation doctor, a driven physician/researcher/administrator who finds time to be an urban foodie and avid fisherman.

Meet Richard T. Lee, M.D.
Richard T. Lee, M.D.

He is the face, and the first leader, of the new Cherng Family Center for Integrative Oncology at City of Hope’s Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, but barely 25 years ago, that job, and yes, that entire field, were furthest from his mind.

So what happened?

The youngest of three children (big brother and big sister are also physicians), Dr. Lee grew up in tiny Hoopeston, Illinois (population 4,900), about 115 miles south of Chicago. “There was a farm about 100 yards away,” he recalled. “All my friends were farmers.” Dr. Lee’s father, however, was not a farmer but the quintessential “country doctor”: a surgeon and family physician serving the entire town. Long before he decided on his own career in medicine, Lee admired his father and his work.

“Growing up in a small town you really see how a physician impacts people’s lives,” he said. “The community always reminded me how important a physician was. They were all so thankful for Dad.”

Dr. Lee didn’t automatically set out for medical school. He first considered a career in law or as a teacher, until he acknowledged his inherent “nerdiness” and love of science, plus his desire, like his father, to impact his community. Working as a physician, especially an oncologist who develops long-lasting relationships with patients, checked all of Dr. Lee’s boxes.

Curious About Integrative Medicine

Still, Dr. Lee saw his path as rather conventional. The idea of "integrative" medicine — combining conventional or Western practices with traditionally Eastern treatments — was little more than a curiosity, inspired perhaps by an acupuncture doll that graced his father’s office for many years. (“Now it’s in my office,” he says, smiling).

After medical school, Lee couldn’t decide on a sub-specialty during his internal medicine residency. So he successfully applied for a Fulbright Fellowship that took him to Taiwan to study acupuncture for a year.

Meet integrative oncology specialist Richard T. Lee, M.D.
And that did it.

“Taiwan changed me,” he says emphatically.

At China Medical University, Dr. Lee saw students learning Western and traditional Chinese medicine at the same time. No one had to choose “either/or.” Neither discipline was considered “superior” or “weird” or “foreign,” and patients routinely availed themselves of the best of both.

“I wanted to bring that back to the U.S.” said Dr. Lee, knowing it would be a tough sell: medical institutions simply did not put things like acupuncture, meditation, aromatherapy and herbal treatments on an equal footing with Western medicine. But he also realized that, having seen those two worlds combined successfully, he was in a position to make a major contribution to the field.

He’s been doing exactly that ever since.

After completing fellowships in hematology, medical oncology, medical ethics and palliative care, Dr. Lee brought his East-West sensitivity to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he became director of integrative medicine (and briefly crossed paths with his current boss, Edward S. Kim, M.D., physician-in-chief, City of Hope Orange County.) Six years later, Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University recruited Dr. Lee to build its new integrative oncology program “from the ground up.”

Word was getting around.

“His reputation  preceded him,” said Dr. Kim, explaining his reasons for luring Lee to City of Hope in 2022. Dr. Kim sought to create in Orange County an integrative oncology program that would stand as a model for the rest of the country. He wanted someone steeped in “servant leadership” who would empower the staff; someone with intellectual curiosity to push research forward and superior administrative skills to make it all happen. 

He saw all those qualities in Dr. Lee, plus the fact that “he’s just genuinely a kind human being,” said Dr. Kim. He also saw that other top institutions were pursuing Dr. Lee as well, so Dr. Kim moved quickly. He cold-called Dr. Lee, promising “I would help him build a program we could be proud of.”

Dr. Lee considered Dr. Kim’s pledge, was impressed by City of Hope’s unparalleled commitment to supportive care, not to mention Southern California’s weather — a big draw after half a decade in Cleveland — and he came aboard.

Together, Drs. Kim and Lee established several services, such as acupuncture and meditation, as the program’s initial offerings. A $100 million gift from the Panda Charitable Family Foundation in 2023 to support the nascent department would serve to make all that they dreamed of for the program possible.

The Cherng Family Center for Integrative Oncology at City of Hope is the first-of-its-kind, national integrative oncology program that brings together Eastern and Western medicine to unlock holistic cancer care. The Cherng Family Center will accelerate the research, education and clinical care needed to ensure cancer patients and their doctors have access to evidence-based,  integrative cancer therapies. 

No Typical Day on the Job

It’s hard to pin down a typical day for Dr. Lee, mainly because it’s simply hard to pin him down at all. On top of all his administrative duties, he sees patients two days a week (his medical oncology specialty is gastrointestinal cancer) and can be found in any of three locations: the Orange County facility, the main campus in Duarte or the City of Hope clinical practice site in South Pasadena.

City of Hope Edward Kim
Edward Kim, M.D.

The rest of his time is spent in a nonstop marathon of meetings, planning sessions, recruiting, hiring, grant-writing, clinical trial preparations and much more. It’s a little head-spinning to consider all the moving parts involved in building, populating and promoting a brand new center focused on a new concept of care. So far, so good, says Dr. Kim. “He’s incredibly hard working, and I couldn't be prouder of what he's done so far in the first couple years.”

Colleagues who see Dr. Lee in action admire the way he treats patients and especially the way he cultivates loyalty among co-workers.

“He is a very caring person for his patients and his staff. He always stresses family first and good work-life balance,” said Judith Rose, director of the supportive and integrative care programs at City of Hope.

Learning and team building are critical for a new institution’s early development, and Rose says Dr. Lee is excelling at both. A year ago, they hosted their first Department of Supportive Care Medicine Orange County retreat together. Plus, they’ve taken some unique field trips, including site visits to other integrative medicine cancer centers.

“We have gone on a listening and learning tour to established programs to learn how they got started,” Rose said. It’s part of Dr. Lee’s “out of the box” thinking, she says. “He likes to explore how things are being done here and in other cancer centers and look at innovative ways to improve on service delivery.”

Hosting the International Society of Integrative Oncology Conference

Soon, instead of flying around the country to learn from others, City of Hope will welcome other integrative oncology experts from around the world. In October, City of Hope Orange County will host and Dr. Lee will chair the 21st International Society of Integrative Oncology conference, expected to draw some 500 health care professionals.

In the meantime, Dr. Lee is focused on immediate goals: He’s hired a new administrative director and a research manager. He’s pushing forward with a slate of uniquely integrative clinical trials, including the examination of herbal remedies, aromatherapy, meditation and acupuncture to alleviate side effects such as nausea and anxiety associated with a variety of cancer treatments. And he’s working quickly to build those mind-body clinical services into the fabric of the Orange County and Duarte locations. “I don’t want these services available just to the well-to-do,” he insists. “I want them available to the average patient.”

That doesn’t leave much downtime, and these days Dr. Lee’s home life is equally busy, having just welcomed a baby daughter in February, who joins her older siblings, twin girls. When they can, the family, liberated from those Cleveland winters, takes advantage of the warm climate, hiking or enjoying the beach. He’s already tapped into the L.A. culinary culture. “He offers suggestions in a range of areas, from hole-in-the-wall locations to Michelin star restaurants he’s tried,” said Rose. And he’s looking forward to exploring some of Southern California’s best fishing destinations.

And whether it’s research, infrastructure or educating the world about integrative oncology, professionally, Dr. Lee’s objective has never been clearer. He sees it each time he enters an examination room.

“I want to help the average patients that I see every day,” he said.