Beth DuPree: The Good Doctor

Meet the woman who wants to revolutionize breast cancer care

By Melinda Henneberger
Dr. Beth DuPree on her last day of work at the breast cancer hospital she is determined to reopen.
Photograph: Photo by Samantha Appleton

Among the other boys on the premises is the founder’s own husband, Joe DuPree, 53, whom she met when she was a medical student at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. A medical researcher, who supervised the students’ projects, he was “a really nice guy,” she says, “a male with an intact ego who didn’t need to prove anything. So I found out he wasn’t married, living with his mother or gay, and asked him out on a date.” They eloped eight months later.

When the second of their two sons was born, Joe DuPree quit to stay home with the kids for several years. In 2000, he started managing his wife’s practice at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, the hospital where she worked before opening her own place. He later segued into doing the same job at CBCI, where he also runs the coffee shop he created in the lobby, pushing lattes and berry-mango smoothies while acting as a kind of back-door counselor to the men shuffling around the halls waiting for their wives. “He’s like Ted Danson at Cheers,” DuPree tells me. We are now back in her office, and DuPree is back in her brown suit jacket, off to deliver a speech on her lunch hour.

We climb into DuPree’s gray pre-owned BMW and drive to Bucks County Community College, where she will be addressing 100 nursing students. On the way, she tells me about her own cancer scare, finding a lump just seven days after she opened her gleaming new facility. “I felt it in the shower and wanted to puke,” she says. “So I did what every self-respecting surgeon does: I scanned myself.” Then she had a colleague do a quick, quiet biopsy. It came back negative, which was doubly a gift, she says: “Now I know how my patients feel. I tell them, ‘When you get good news, that tumor was God whispering in your ear. And that list of everything you were going to change if it was cancer? Don’t throw it away; make those changes anyway.’ ”

From the moment we arrive at the nurses’ luncheon, DuPree is besieged by hugs. And I don’t mean those anemic taps that accompany air kisses but deep squeezes from women who throw their arms around her and explain that they are her patient so-and-so’s sister or cousin or friend and can’t thank her enough.

DuPree eschews the lectern and moves easily about the room. She begins by asking how many classes in healing the nursing students have taken. “Zero, right?” she says, and almost all nod yes. When she was training to become a surgeon, she tells them, it was the same way: Nothing heals like cold steel, her teachers used to say. To cut is to cure. Only, she’d learned from the losses and near misses in her own life that there’s more to it than that. “When I was 17 years old, I was out with my friends one night, being bad, and we heard on the radio that someone had been killed in a traffic accident,” she tells them. And somehow, before she even pulled up to her house and saw all the police cars, she knew it was her brother. “So when someone I’m treating or their loved one is facing loss, I do know what that feels like,” she says. That was also the first step in the spiritual journey that eventually led her to conclude that “because someone’s disease is not curable does not mean they can’t heal from it. When we pull back, that’s the worst thing we can do. We want to help them get to a safe place before they transition”—die, she means—“and they don’t teach that in med school.”

Now, I’ve been to quite a few lectures and have given some myself, and in both instances, there have always been at least a few audience members dozing in their seats. I look around the room at the students—a mixed bag of age, gender and race, this being a community college—and every single person is rapt with attention.

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