Kathleen M. Schmeler, MD: A Gynecologic Oncology Activist for Underserved Women

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Kathleen M. Schmeler, MD

Kathleen M. Schmeler, MD

Kathleen M. Schmeler, MD, Associate Professor in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, was given the “Heroes in Medicine” award from Physician’s Weekly in May 2016. Her primary work is in cervical cancer prevention and treatment in developing countries and medically underserved women in the United States.

“I grew up in a rural area of Canada, about an hour outside of Montreal. My father was Canadian and my mother was American, so I’ve always enjoyed dual citizenship. I lived in Canada until I was 14, when we moved to Albany, New York. No one in the family was in medicine, and the thought of becoming a doctor never entered my mind. I actually went to Clarkson University in Potsdam and received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1991,” said Dr. Schmeler. 

From Amsterdam to MD Anderson 

AFTER GRADUATING from Clarkson, her first job was at Procter & Gamble, making paper towels, but after a few years, she decided she needed a career that had more value on a social level. “I began to think about medicine and had the opportunity to live abroad in Holland and work for 6 months with a researcher named Peter Demant, MD, PhD, at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam,” shared Dr. Schmeler. While there, she had the opportunity to shadow the clinical oncologists on rounds. 

“It was a life-changing experience, and when I returned to the States, I applied to the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Hahnemann University School of Medicine, Philadelphia, and received my medical degree in 2000,” Dr. Schmeler said. During her last year of medical school, Dr. Schmeler decided on gynecology as a specialty. “I spent a month at the University of Southern California rotating with the gynecologic service in a county hospital under a fantastic fellow named Karen Zempolich, MD, which was what solidified my decision to go into oncology,” revealed Dr. Schmeler. 

She continued: “In 2000, I began my OB/GYN residency at Brown University’s Women and Infants’ Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. I had a terrific mentor there, a gynecologic oncologist named Skip Granai [Cornelius O. “Skip” Granai III, MD, FACOG, FACS]. He accelerated my interest in pursuing gynecologic oncology. Although I never thought I’d leave the Northeast, I had an opportunity to do my fellowship at MD Anderson and took it; I’ve been here ever since. It is a fantastic place to work. As a Canadian, it took a while to get used to the weather, especially in the summer!” 

Underserved Populations Near and Far 

DURING HER EARLY years in medical school and residency, Dr. Schmeler performed outreach work in underserved medical populations in Latin America and Africa. “I was shocked by the reality of cervical cancer incidence and mortality in areas of the developing world, where this highly preventable cancer was still one of the leading killers of women because of a lack of screening and vaccine programs and management of preinvasive and early-stage disease. Even here in the United States, at a public hospital a few miles away from MD Anderson, the cervical cancer rates are much higher than they should be, which is also driven by a lack of access to preventive services,” she observed. 

Dr. Schmeler runs the Gynecologic Oncology Global Curriculum and Mentoring Program of the International Gynecologic Cancer Society—a training program for regions of the world that don’t have formalized training in gynecologic oncology. The program had five pilot sites in Kenya, Mozambique, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. 

“Women should not die of cervical cancer in today’s health-care environment.”
— Kathleen M. Schmeler, MD

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Over the past few years, Dr. Schmeler and her colleagues also have been doing extensive work in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border, where the cervical cancer rates are 30% higher than in the rest of Texas. She is a co-leader of the Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) program, which uses a Skype-like video-conferencing program to link MD Anderson faculty in Houston with Rio Grande Valley clinicians. Houston-area physicians connect on screen and in real time with Rio Grande Valley health-care providers to discuss patient cases and teach medical techniques. 

“MD Anderson is the number-one cancer center in the world, and yet a few hours away, we have women dying of a completely preventable disease. That speaks volumes about the disparities of care within the health-care system,” declared Dr. Schmeler. 

‘Women Should Not Die of Cervical Cancer’ 

“WE REGULARLY go to the Rio Grande Valley to conduct hands-on training on how to perform a colposcopy, cervical biopsies, and loop electrosurgical excision procedures—all diagnostic and treatment procedures to prevent cervical cancer in women with abnormal screening tests. An important part of these projects is community outreach activities, where we work with our local partners to educate the public on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination and cervical cancer screening,” she noted. 

“Education is a huge part of breaking down barriers to care,” Dr. Schmeler added. “It is a multipronged approach that empowers physicians, and nurse practitioners, midwives, and physician assistants with the skills needed to prevent cervical cancer. Women should not die of cervical cancer in today’s health-care environment. We need to vaccinate our children against HPV and make sure women have access to cervical cancer screening programs, regardless of their economic status.” 

Dr. Schmeler’s precious time away from her challenging career is spent with her husband and children, a 13-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. She’s also an avid traveler and runner. ■

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Schmeler reported no conflicts of interest.