Virginia G. Kaklamani, MD
Virginia G. Kaklamani, MD, Professor of Hematology/Oncology at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio and leader of the center’s breast cancer program, was born and reared in Athens, Greece. “I spent my formative years in Athens, where I attended school. My father is a physician and my mom’s a physician/researcher, and they both really love their work. Hearing my father talk about various patients and how he approached treatment was very stimulating. So I was groomed for a career in medicine at an early age,” said Dr. Kaklamani.
Medical School During a Revolution
Unlike the educational road in the United States, aspiring doctors in Greece do not go to college; instead they go directly to medical school for 6 years. All high school students sit for national-level exams, from which they can apply to different schools, such as medical or engineering. Medical school admission is the most competitive, and only the top scorers on the national exam qualify.
“I actually did my first 2 years of medical school in Hungary from 1990 to 1992,” shared Dr. Kaklamani. “I made that decision because they had a good English program and by then I realized I wanted to relocate to the States at some point. Hungary was a wonderful experience. It was a time of social revolution, when the Soviet troops ended their occupation.”
Dr. Kaklamani explained that under the European medical school system, the first 2 and a half years are preclinical, and then the next 3 and a half years are spent in the clinic. “Naturally, patients in the clinic spoke Hungarian, and it was quite challenging, as my proficiency with the language was limited. So I took entrance exams to return to Greece and finish medical school,” she added.
Early Decision to Pursue Oncology
Asked about her decision to pursue a career in oncology, Dr. Kaklamani replied: “Ever since I was about 16 years old, for whatever reason, I wanted to become a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer. I had no personal experience with a family member having breast cancer but was just intrigued by the disease and the prospect of taking care of women and building long-term doctor-patient relationships,” said Dr. Kaklamani. She added: “Plus the opportunity to do cancer research in the lab was also another fascinating aspect of oncology.”
After attaining her medical degree in 1996 from Athens University Medical School and her ScD in 2000, Dr. Kaklamani faced a tough decision: where to do her specialty training. “I wanted to go to the United States. Both of my parents had trained in the States and had had a wonderful experience. Still, leaving home and moving halfway across the world gave me pause, and I struggled with the decision for awhile. But I finally left Greece and worked for a researcher in Boston who specialized in endocrinology. He wanted to move into endocrine oncology, and we did a lot of work together on growth factors in breast cancer,” revealed Dr. Kaklamani.
Balancing Clinic and Lab
Dr. Kaklamani was accepted for a residency program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, a community center in Boston affiliated with Tufts Medical School. “During my 3 years of residency, there were numerous people who advised me against going into oncology, saying it was depressing, so many patients die, and so on. But I worked through those negative feelings, realizing that even as some patients will die of the disease, we can help each one by employing a growing array of clinical options. And during my residency, I cared for a large and diverse population of cancer patients, which was a fulfilling experience. And I never looked back on my decision to become an oncologist,” she said.
During my residency, I cared for a large and diverse population of cancer patients, which was a fulfilling experience. And I never looked back on my decision to become an oncologist.— Virginia G. Kaklamani, MD
Tweet this quote
During her second year of residency, Dr. Kaklamani was accepted for a fellowship in hematology/oncology at Northwestern University in Chicago, describing her experience as a wonderful, well-balanced education in the clinic and research lab that helped her grow as an academic oncologist. Dr. Kaklamani stayed at Northwestern for 11 years, during which time she helped build the University’s cancer genetics program.
“I became Director of the Translational Breast Cancer program, so I did a lot of work with laboratory scientists and clinical trial investigations,” she continued. “It was a great place, but I left after being offered a leadership position in the breast cancer program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, which is considered one of the nation’s best programs,” said Dr. Kaklamani. “I asked my husband, a native of Chicago, if he was okay with relocating to Texas. He was, and we moved 3 years ago.”
Dr. Kaklamani quickly acclimated to her new home: a sun-drenched place where no winter clothes are needed and she does not have to battle the blizzards of Chicago winters. She also commented on the community spirit and pride at The University of Texas Health Science Center and its Mays Cancer Center, the newly named center home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center. “The Mays Cancer Center was built by the people of San Antonio for the people of San Antonio. The people here are invested in their Cancer Center and actively participate in the things that affect its governance and operations,” she explained.
I still love working in the clinic, helping my patients and trying to solve their particular issues.— Virginia G. Kaklamani, MD
Tweet this quote
Dr. Kaklamani’s day-to-day work varies from the clinic to the laboratory to the meeting room. “I still love working in the clinic, helping my patients and trying to solve their particular issues. My nonclinic days are filled with meetings, from early morning to evening, trying to resolve various matters with, for instance, our clinical trials group or our translational research scientists, so we can push our research from bench to bedside.”
Asked about the fiscal challenges that might hamper her research and clinical trial goals moving forward, Dr. Kaklamani said: “We’re fortunate to have a community that understands the importance of our work and supports the cancer center. That said, practicing academic medicine in today’s environment is challenging. Everything is measured in revenue. It is very different from when I began training and practicing oncology. I see new clinicians stressed out about their patient numbers and how much revenue they’re generating. It’s sad, but that’s the reality we live in, and we must do the best for our patients.”
Researching Link Between Obesity and Cancer
During Dr. Kaklamani’s lab work in Boston, studying endocrinology growth factors in breast cancer, she and her mentor began preliminary studies of the relationship between obesity and cancer. While at Northwestern Memorial, as Co-Director of the Cancer Genetics Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, Dr. Kaklamani continued that work, leading a study that uncovered a link between the fat mass and obesity-associated gene (FTO) and a higher incidence of breast cancer. Women who possess a variant of the FTO gene have up to a 30% greater chance of developing breast cancer.
At UT Health San Antonio, Dr. Kaklamani has continued her work in obesity-related cancer risk and outcomes, looking at factors that affect weight gain in women diagnosed with cancer. In a recent study, she and her associates looked at about 500 patients and determined that women younger than age 60 with breast cancer who have a genetic risk factor for obesity have a higher risk for gaining weight and should begin a weight-loss program to increase their chance for survival.1 “We’re now trying to design a program to help these women prevent the weight gain that puts them at risk for poorer outcomes and recurrence.”
What does a busy clinician-researcher do to decompress? “I play tennis. One of the perks of living in Texas is you can play outside all year long,” she shared. ■
DISCLOSURE: Dr. Kaklamani reported no conflicts of interest.
1. Sadim M, Xu Y, Selig K, et al: A prospective evaluation of clinical and genetic predictors of weight changes in breast cancer survivors. Cancer 123:2413-2421, 2017.