January 28, 2020—Though most of her days are spent in the operating room, surgical oncologist Kimberly Wooten, M.D. ’08, believes cancer care requires more than skill with a scalpel. It takes real heart.
“My work is more than just surgery. When I interact with my patients, I always keep in the back of my mind, what would I do if this was my loved one? How would I want the interaction to unfold?” says Wooten, a cancer surgeon at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York. “I think it’s helpful for patients to know their physician actually cares about more than their surgical outcome, but their well-being, too.”
Wooten’s capacity for compassion drew her to oncology early on in her medical education. The summer before she began medical school, her grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. After witnessing the quality of care her loved one received, Wooten resolved to become a physician who prioritizes both empathy and honesty.
“I got the sense that my grandfather’s physicians lacked compassion with him and honesty when they communicated with us. It was tremendously frustrating,” Wooten recalls. “Being in medical school, I felt it was my role to change that image of a physician, especially as they interface with patients. Transparency and honesty are tremendously important.”
Wooten’s time at the UF College of Medicine further cemented her decision to become a physician, providing her with mentors who inspired her and an education that prepared her for a challenging career in oncology.
“Dr. Kyle Rarey planted that seed of excitement. He instilled that desire in me to learn and understand. Dr. Donna Parker was very inclusive, kind and motivating to us students. She was a motherly figure and gave us a home away from home,” Wooten says. “When I graduated medical school and moved into a surgical residency, I felt ready to be an intern on day 1. If it wasn’t for my UF education, I don’t think I would be the surgeon I am today.”
The quality of education Wooten received inspired her to give to the Legacy Challenge at her alma mater, making her the youngest alum to join this scholarship giving campaign.
“Giving is a way to perpetually pay it forward,” Wooten says. “I give to a medical student who will become a physician, go on to help many patients, and then they will give back to the medical students who come after them.”
Wooten completed a general surgery residency at the SUNY University at Buffalo and a fellowship in head and neck surgical oncology and microvascular reconstruction at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Today, in addition to her clinical practice, Wooten serves as an assistant professor of oncology at Roswell Park and an assistant professor of surgery at University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Wooten specializes in head and neck cancers affecting the mouth, tongue, throat, thyroid and salivary glands among others.
Wooten is a passionate advocate for the patients she treats, a segment of the population that may not experience the same health outcomes as patients with other kinds of cancer.
“Head and neck cancers are oftentimes associated with patients of lower socioeconomic status that have vices like smoking and drinking alcohol, qualities that keep communities from rallying around them like they do for breast cancer or colon cancer,” she says. “The overall prognosis for these cancers is very poor. I think what has contributed to these poor outcomes in part is that they haven’t gained a lot of attention or much support from the greater medical community. I saw a huge void to be filled by us as physicians to educate patients about preventative methods and treatment options. That propelled me into this field.”
Wooten remains cognizant of the psychological and emotional weight that a cancer diagnosis carries, and throughout the months and years she works with her patients, she guides them through the stages of grief from denial and anger to depression and bargaining until they finally reach a state of acceptance. For Wooten, cancer care is about walking alongside her patients on the long journey to recovery.
“There will always be a struggle for patients who have recently been diagnosed with cancer. When they’re initially diagnosed, most are in disbelief. They need a support system to encourage them as they go through treatment. My role is to mitigate some of the ups and downs of those stages of grief,” Wooten says. “With every patient, I want them to feel like this is a safe space where our goal is to work together to treat their cancers and improve their overall health.”