Physician Spotlight: Dr. V. Suzanne Klimberg
Dr. V. Suzanne Klimberg always knew that she wanted to come back to Arkansas to work.
The Fayetteville native went off to college and became a member of the Gator Nation by attending medical school at the University of Florida at Gainesville, but when it came time to do her residency, it was back to Little Rock.
The surgical oncologist has spent the last 17 years living and working in Little Rock, and for the last five years, Klimberg’s research has been on lymphedema, a condition in which the arm swells with built-up fluid as a result of damage done during surgery.
“A lot of women will tell you that it is worse than a mastectomy,” Klimberg said of lymphedema. “They have trouble getting into their clothes or wearing their jewelry. It is a real, significant concern to women.”
The problem usually starts accidentally during surgery.
“We don’t do damage on purpose,” Klimberg said of damage to the lymphatics. “A surgeon like me will go in and you really don’t recognize them. They are clear and you just may not see them since sometimes they are the same color as tissue that runs underneath or around. They can be huge, six millimeters, that’s a quarter of an inch, but it doesn’t matter because you still can’t see them.”
But Klimberg began to wonder was if there was a way to make the lymphatics visible.
In an article published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology, Klimberg and her team showed that axillary reverse mapping (ARM) was a way to make the lymphatics visible.
The process involved injecting a blue dye and then mapping the drainage of the arm.
In the synopsis of a study conducted on 40 patients undergoing surgery for breast cancer reported that “ARM identified significant lymphatic variations draining the upper extremities and facilitated preservation in all but one case” and “ARM added to …and…further defines the axilla and may be useful to prevent lymphedema.”
Klimberg explained, “Anything like that, that keeps you from swelling, can potentially avoid damage to the lymphatics. It does not completely cure it, in other words, they can still have lymphedema, but what we can do is get that number down.”Pink Marketing
Klimberg sees around 300 to 400 patients a month and treats around 400 patients a year for breast cancer in her role as director of the Division of Breast Surgical Oncology at the Arkansas Cancer Research Center.
In her 17 years as an oncologist, she has seen some dramatic changes in breast cancer treatment.
“So much has improved because we have so many techniques,” Klimberg said. “And we passed the Breast Cancer Act in 1997 and that has done so much for those here. It allowed us to have screenings for the indigent, and it is all a matter of awareness.”
Of course one almost has to purposely avoid awareness of breast cancer. The pink ribbon has become ubiquitous in popular culture, from pink baseball bats used by professional baseball players to grocery stores with aisle after aisle of pink-branded products.
In Little Rock, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure has become a major event with over 40,000 running last year and even more on board for this year. (Full disclosure: The Medical News of Arkansas is one of the media sponsors of the race.)
It isn’t all baseball bats and jogging shoes though.
“We just passed it where a person can get a breast cancer license plate,” Klimberg said. “That is one of the things we are doing and it is all a matter of awareness. If we can dial up the advertising, we can get more people in. The more people who get in for screenings, the more women we can catch with cancer early. And it means more will live.”
The key, according to Klimberg, has been the efforts of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
“More and more people are getting more and more aware,” Klimberg said. “Komen has been a good instrument for doing that. They have used the dollars that they have raised very wisely, on a number of different fronts, and what they have done is very important.”
Klimberg herself has been a recipient of the Komen Foundation’s largess and in 2001, she received a grant of $70,000 to “train surgeons in the comprehensive and special needs of breast cancer patients,” according to a press release put out at the time.What the Future Holds
So what’s next for Klimberg and other doctors who treat breast cancer?
“I think we are going to have better imaging,” Klimberg said. “I think it is going to get a whole lot better.”
And it won’t just be the imaging.
“We’re going to see some incredible new biopsy techniques,” she said. “We are going to get where we use less radiation and, in some cases, people won’t even need radiation.”
But that isn’t even the most promising thing on the horizon.
“I think what we’ll see is someone develop a vaccine for breast cancer,” Klimberg said. “Just like the vaccine that they have for cervical cancer. They already have that and I think that we will see it for breast cancer as well.”
Klimberg views every day as a new day.
“It is very exciting to be able to do something about (breast cancer), be able to treat it and take care of it.”