At the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, she is the Courtney M. Townsend Jr., M.D., distinguished chair in general surgery, the vice chair for administration, a professor and the chief of the division of surgical oncology in the department of surgery. It was no fluke that Klimberg was inducted into the UF College of Medicine Hall of Fame, which honors alumni who create noteworthy impacts in their field, in 1999. She says her medical training at UF provided her with translational research opportunities that would later impact her professional career.
“I was the first research fellow to work in the general surgical research lab of Wiley “Chip” Souba, M.D. My peers and I had a fantastic time not only doing clinical surgery, but taking it to the lab and back again in terms of translational research,” she says. “There were so many people that impacted me at UF — from cardiothoracic to transplant to surgical oncology to gastrointestinal surgery. It was an incredible time there. And it remains a powerhouse and an excellent training program.”
Klimberg’s research delves into preventing and reducing the common complications and toxicities implicit in the treatment of breast cancer. She says the field of breast surgical oncology has undergone an evolution in the last few decades. In the 1970s, mastectomies, which partially or completely surgically remove one or both breasts, were commonly performed. In later years, breast conservation — removing abnormal tissue through lumpectomy followed by radiation — was favored. Then, an effort to reduce the toxicity of treatment with only partial breast radiation was performed. Now, she says, using heat instead of radiation has proven to be a less toxic, less aggressive form of treatment. Klimberg’s innovative research — often employing clinical trials — has helped pave the way for the future of breast cancer treatment.
“Breast surgical oncology is an outlet for both my skill set and my creative talents. I like to try new ideas and techniques. That’s what I was taught: there’s always a better mousetrap,” she says. “You don’t have to do something the same way every time. Why not try something better?”
For Klimberg, patients receive the same treatment and attention she would give to her own friends and family. For those faced with a worrisome diagnosis, she offers hope and encouragement, in addition to the continuous advancement of treatments.
“It’s about being there and caring about the patient. They have my personal cell number if they have a question or a problem,” Klimberg says. “Breast cancer is not a death sentence. You can avoid the complications and toxicities of old breast cancer treatments. You can live a full, happy life with the right treatment.”