The Art And Science Of Pathology

Feb 2, 2016

By Cecilia Yeung M.D., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

There are many facets of medicine, but we are all here for the same goal: to help patients
 feel better. In medical school, I wanted to help patients who were fearful or frustrated when their diagnosis was either unknown or unclear. In fact, during my surgery rotations in medical school, I found myself following tumor specimens into the pathology suite to get that first glimpse at what the offending cancer was and how to make it better. Pathologists are physician scientists. As physicians, we help people by diagnosing their disease and guiding the management of that disease. As scientists, we ask, “How can we improve upon what we do?” On top of this, I also see the intertwining of art and science within my profession.

THE ART: I have never envisioned myself as an artist. However, the first time I looked through a microscope and was asked to differentiate the pink from the blue cells, I saw the beauty within histology. The centuries old Hematoxylin and Eosin staining protocols change mostly colorless cells and tissue into a work of art like a mosaic with patterns and colors. Normal tissues have an inherent beauty in their organization and structure that is unsurpassed. In contrast, cancer tissues can take on a wide range of looks, from an ugly chaotic mess (which can be art in its own right) to bizarre tumors, which try to mimic normal tissues by trying to take on some form of structure. To this day, I often gaze into my microscope in awe of this other world and how a microscope, like a canvas, can transform what I see into a work of art.

THE SCIENCE: At my first job after college, I learned about molecular pathology. Specifically, how an invisible fragment of DNA or RNA can help provide care to a patient. I optimized a test that could diagnose if a patient might have chronic myelogenous leukemia, a type of blood cancer, and if they could be treated with a specific drug (such as a tyrosine kinase inhibitor). Ultimately, this very empowering experience led me to medical school and eventually, to specialize in pathology.

Now, at Fred Hutchinson, I am able to use both the art and science of pathology that I’ve developed a passion for to help diagnose patients. I peer through the mosaics of histology to monitor newly introduced stem cells after marrow transplants and molecular profiles to determine diagnoses and help guide treatment. Both tasks that ultimately help patients feel better.