Jan. 18, 2017 | Eighteen years ago, Gail Clayton received news that changed her life. Looking back, she says finding out she had breast cancer marked the beginning of new perspectives.
“When I was first diagnosed with cancer, it wasn’t the end of life as so many people think. To me, it was the beginning of life.”
Clayton and her husband, Raymond, have been married 46 years. He calls UAMS one of Arkansas’ best kept secrets.
“I don’t think people realize how amazing this institution is,” Clayton said. “You become friends with your doctors and nurses. It takes a village and I believe that village is right within these walls at UAMS.
She had breast cancer twice and was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. That prompted Clayton’s oncologist, Laura Hutchins, M.D., to refer her to gynecologic oncologist Kristin Zorn, M.D.
“Anytime we see a patient with a new diagnosis of cancer in the ovaries, fallopian tubes or the peritoneum (the internal lining of the abdomen), we think of a possible hereditary source for that cancer,” Zorn said.
Clayton and Zorn discussed genetic counseling and ultimately found Clayton had a mutation in one of the BRCA genes, commonly known as the breast cancer genes. Every person is born with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but women who inherit mutations of the genes have an increased chance of developing breast, ovarian, and other cancers.
Researchers’ knowledge about these genetic mutations has helped lead to development of a new class of drugs known as PARP inhibitors.
“PARP inhibitors capitalize on the genetic defect that’s already present in people who carry one of these mutations,” Zorn said. “It helps to kill the cancer cells that are accumulating DNA damage.”
There are three types of PARP inhibitors that have been FDA-approved over the past few years: olaparib, rucaparib and niraparib. Clayton is a part of a clinical trial that includes her taking olaparib.
“With PARP inhibitors, we first focused on people who carry a BRCA or similar mutation. We’re now finding many patients with ovarian cancer who do not have a mutation are responding to the drugs.”
Another advantage of this new class of drugs is that they can be taken orally rather than through intravenous infusion, making it more convenient for patients. This works especially well for Clayton who spends a great deal of her time seeing the world.
“If someone says go, we pack a bag and go.”
Since her first diagnosis, Clayton says she takes nothing for granted and began living in a way she may not have if not for the illness. She and Raymond Clayton have made lots of memories abroad. Sometimes their adult son Randy joins them.
“We’ve been to the Baltic States, Russia, Berlin, Sweden…”
She’s responded well to the clinical trial and shows no indications of slowing down.
“…England, Paris, the Caribbean, Ireland. It’s been a journey.”
“Part of the reason I’m so passionate about practicing at a place like UAMS, is that it helps us bring cutting-edge therapies to our patients,” Zorn said. “Sometimes we’re talking about a surgical advance, sometimes we’re talking about an advance in treatment.”
Zorn says genetic counseling and testing has become a standard of care in some of the most common gynecological cancers.
“While many parts of the country are having trouble keeping up with the change in the standard of care, UAMS has a genetic counselor embedded in our clinic so that we can accomplish that.”
“The way I see it,” said Clayton, “Even if the clinical trial didn’t work for me, maybe it would work for someone else. I’m grateful for the strides scientists have made in treating this disease.”
This clinical trial was developed through the NRG Oncology cooperative trial group of the National Cancer Institute. The only access to this trial in Arkansas is at UAMS.
Nov. 30, 2017 – Ronda Henry-Tillman, M.D., F.A.C.S., was invested Nov. 29 as recipient of the Muriel Balsam Kohn Chair in Breast Surgical Oncology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). She is chief of Breast Oncology in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Surgery.
The endowed chair is the result of a gift from the Tenenbaum Foundation. The foundation’s primary objectives include providing humanitarian assistance to residents of central Arkansas, promoting awareness of breast cancer, and funding research to reduce or eliminate deaths from the disease.
The chair is named in honor of Muriel Balsam Kohn, mother of Judy Tenenbaum, who died of breast cancer in 1993.
“I am thankful for the generosity and foresight of the Tenenbaum Foundation in establishing this endowed chair, which has enabled valuable breast cancer research to be conducted in Arkansas for the past 10 years. This legacy will continue for many years to come through the work and dedication of Dr. Henry-Tillman,” said UAMS Interim Chancellor Stephanie Gardner, Pharm.D., Ed.D., who also serves as senior vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost.
An endowed chair is among the highest academic honors a university can bestow on a faculty member and is established with gifts of $1 million, which are invested and the proceeds used to support the educational, research and clinical activities of the chair holder. Those named to a chair are among the most highly regarded scientists, physicians and professors in their fields of expertise.
“Dr. Henry-Tillman has been a valuable member of the UAMS faculty since 1998, not only serving as a knowledgeable and caring physician for countless women, but also as a tireless advocate for underserved Arkansans who lack basic health care services. There is no doubt that her work to improve access to mammography services has extended the lives of women across our state,” said UAMS Cancer Institute Director Peter Emanuel, M.D., who also serves as professor of medicine in the UAMS College of Medicine.
NBA Hall of Famer and philanthropist Dikembe Mutombo addressed the attendees gathered to honor Henry-Tillman at a Nov. 29 ceremony, praising her work at educating health providers in Africa, including at the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital he founded 10 years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Henry-Tillman’s mentor, Groesbeck P. Parham, M.D., recruited her to travel to Africa where she has taught breast surgical techniques and medical procedures to health care providers who have limited access to equipment and advanced educational opportunities. Parham is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
After earning her medical degree at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, Henry-Tillman completed her surgical residency in the UAMS Department of Surgery and fellowship training in the UAMS Fellowship in Diseases of the Breast program.
She holds the positions of professor in the Department of Surgery, co-director of Health Initiatives and Disparities Research in the UAMS College of Medicine, and co-leader of the Breast Tumor Disease Oriented Committee in the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
She previously served as director of the UAMS Cancer Control program and was instrumental in the development of the university’s mobile mammography program.
Her research efforts have focused primarily on health initiatives that address access, community-based participatory research, health disparities and health policy in the areas of breast, prostate, colorectal, and cervical cancer prevention.
In 2016, Henry-Tillman was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission and was voted chairman in 2017. She also is a member of the Breast Cancer Control Advisory Board and is a Pulaski County health officer for the Arkansas State Board of Health.
Her memberships and professional activities include the American Surgical Association, Society of Surgical Oncology, Southern Surgical Association, Society of Black Academic Surgeons, National Medical Association, American Society of Breast Surgeons and multiple committees of the National Institutes of Health. She has served as a board member for the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers and the national Health Disparities Committee for the American Cancer Society, as well as the Arkansas Cancer Coalition and other local organizations.
She has received numerous awards and honors including being named to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honorary Medical Society, Best Doctors in America and Castle Connolly’s Exceptional Women in Medicine. She is recipient of the Shipley Award by the Southern Surgical Association; the Rosetta Wilkins Award by BreastCare; the President’s Award by the Arkansas Medical and Dental Pharmaceutical Association; the President’s Award by the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus. She also has received the Phenomenal Woman in Science and Excellence in STEM Mentoring awards.
The Tenenbaum Foundation was created in 1964 by Joe M. Tenenbaum. The foundation created the chair’s endowment in 2007 to recognize Kohn and the chair’s first holder V. Suzanne Klimberg, M.D., Ph.D., former director of the UAMS Division of Breast and Surgical Oncology. Klimberg now serves as medical director of the University of Texas Medical Branch Cancer Center in Galveston, Texas.
Speakers at the Nov. 29 ceremony included Gardner, Emanuel, Klimberg, Parham, Mutombo and the following:
April 14, 2017 | Lesley Murphy is accustomed to waking up in exotic locations. From snow-covered Finland to the beaches of Bali, this 29-year-old professional blogger spends more than 300 days a year documenting her travels to vacation destinations around the world.
“My number one goal is inspiring travel and showing people that if they get out of their comfort zones, they can make the world a better place,” she said.
Recently, however, the Arkansas native took a detour from her globetrotting lifestyle to focus on a very different subject — her future health. About three years ago, Lesley was living in Argentina when she received the call that her mother, Martha Murphy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. With no history of breast cancer in her family, the diagnosis came as a shock.
“It was my first year living abroad, and I felt so far away,” Lesley said. “It was a wash of emotions. You never want to hear the words ‘mom’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence.”
Martha Murphy, who was living in Fort Smith at the time, felt a lump in her breast before scheduling a mammogram in early March 2014. After it was confirmed she had stage 1 breast cancer, Martha immediately sought the advice of her next-door neighbor, who happened to be an oncologist. He recommended genetic testing to determine if she might have a mutation of one of the BRCA genes, commonly known as the breast cancer genes.
While every person is born with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, women who inherit mutations of the genes have up to an 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 70. If Martha tested positive for a gene mutation, it would mean her three adult daughters had the potential for it as well.
“My doctor in Fort Smith ordered the genetic test on the same day I was diagnosed, but it took a few days to receive the results,” Martha said.
The morning after her diagnosis, Martha decided she wanted to seek a second opinion at UAMS, Arkansas’ only academic health sciences center. After a reassuring visit on March 21 with breast surgeon V. Suzanne Klimberg, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Program at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Martha scheduled a double mastectomy for 10 days later.
Her breast reconstruction surgery was completed at UAMS in August, followed by an oophorectomy to remove her ovaries in September. A BRCA gene mutation also can increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.
“When I look back, this experience was just a blip on my radar. While it was happening, I was in the midst of helping my eldest daughter plan her wedding. I didn’t have time to focus on myself, so I’m terribly blessed that I didn’t have any complications or need any chemo or radiation,” Martha said.
Klimberg also is a professor of surgery and pathology in the UAMS College of Medicine and director of the Division of Breast Surgical Oncology.
Martha received the results of her genetic test prior to her visit with Klimberg and was surprised to discover she did indeed carry the BRCA2 gene mutation. She immediately knew that she wanted her daughters to be tested as well.
“I told them, this is what we’re going to do. They needed to know if they had the gene mutation, so they could make informed decisions about their future,” Martha said.
Each child of a parent — mother or father — who carries a mutation in one of the BRCA genes has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutation.
Martha’s eldest daughter, Lauren, and youngest, Jordan, both underwent testing at the UAMS Cancer Genetics Clinic and received mixed results.
“After Jordan’s test came back negative, we were hopeful they all would,” Martha said.
That would not be the case, as Lauren’s results were soon found to be positive for her mom’s BRCA2 mutation. The UAMS Cancer Institute is home to the only clinical cancer genetics team in Arkansas. Although any doctor can order genetic testing — which is conducted using a blood or saliva sample — UAMS has the only board-certified geneticists and genetic counselors in the state who can diagnose rare syndromes and manage complex cancer syndromes, of which there are more than 50.
As for Lesley, finding time for the genetic screening was a challenge in itself. Because she was living in South America, did not have domestic insurance, and was launching her career as a travel blogger, the sense of urgency wasn’t strong.
“I would be in Arkansas for two days and then gone for a month, so there was never any time to schedule it. Two years went by before I was home for an extended time. That’s when Mom encouraged me to get it done,” said Lesley, who initially gained fame as a contestant on season 17 of ABC’s “The Bachelor.”
When her genetic test came back positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, Lesley knew she had some choices to make. She looked to Kent McKelvey, M.D., director of Cancer and Adult Genetics Services, and the UAMS Cancer Genetics Clinic staff for guidance.
“Each person ultimately has to make the choices that are best for themselves and their families. We are here to help people understand the evidence and options and guide them to make the best informed decisions,” said McKelvey, who also is associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Division of Genetics.
For Lesley, those choices were to undergo breast cancer screenings every six months in an attempt to catch any tumors in their earliest stages or have a preventive double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction. With her travel career in full swing, Lesley said the choice was clear.
“Because of my schedule, I didn’t foresee the twice-yearly screenings as a realistic option. While it may sound drastic to some people, having the surgery was definitely the best option for me,” she said.
The fact that Lesley was able to learn about her gene mutation and make the best choice for herself provides a sense of freedom and empowerment, McKelvey said.
“Given her active career and the fact that she gave this decision serious consideration, her choice to have elective surgery makes perfect sense,” he said.
Following the double mastectomy with UAMS breast surgeon Daniela Ochoa, M.D., Lesley’s risk of developing breast cancer will be reduced by about 95 percent. Nothing can eliminate the risk entirely, McKelvey said, however, surgery is the most effective strategy to dramatically reduce her risk of breast cancer and eliminate any future need for screenings. Ochoa is a professor of surgery in the UAMS College of Medicine Division of Breast Surgical Oncology.
“I saw this as a way to educate people and encourage them to be more knowledgeable about their own personal health decisions,” she said.
After a four-week break from traveling following her April mastectomy, Lesley will hit the road again in May, this time with Mom by her side.
“The doctors think I’ll be fine to travel by then, but she’ll be there for support if I need it,” Lesley said.
She will return to UAMS in late summer to complete her breast reconstruction process under the direction of plastic surgeon Eric J. Wright, M.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
Then, it’s back on a plane to her next destination. “I will always travel. I don’t know what my career will eventually evolve into, but travel is definitely what I’m passionate about and what makes me happy,” Lesley said.
Feb. 1, 2017 | The UAMS Mobile Mammography Program recently received a lift from FIS, its newest partner, in the form of a $25,000 gift. For many members of the FIS campus leadership committee, which presented the gift, it is an intensely personal one.
“If you pick anybody off the street from here or this region, and ask them how cancer has impacted their life, odds are very high that they’ve got a connection with UAMS,” said Joel Wheelis, FIS group executive. “It becomes very personal very quickly.”
Fidelity National Information Services Inc., better known by the abbreviation FIS, is an international provider of financial services technology and outsourcing services.
The UAMS MammoVan visited the FIS campus in Little Rock on Jan. 18. There, members of the FIS campus leadership committee presented the $25,000 check to Sharp Malak, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Mobile Mammography Program in the Department of Radiology of the UAMS College of Medicine.
“We’re extremely grateful for this gift because it allows us to serve even more women in rural Arkansas,” Malak said. “Where you live should not determine if you live.”
The gift supports the Mobile Mammography Program, which recently acquired a second MammoVan. The funds from FIS will help refurbish the original MammoVan, which should be operational again in March, Malak said.
The MammoVan regularly travels across Arkansas to provide digital screening mammograms and breast care education. The three-room mobile unit is outfitted with the most advanced digital mammography equipment and is staffed by a certified mammography technologist and a technical assistant.
“Having a second vehicle, we’ll go to some places and be there for days at a time, not only to be in that community but to establish a presence there,” Malak said.
“Women who aren’t near a mammography facility are less likely to get a mammogram, but it doesn’t change their risk of getting breast cancer,” Malak said. “The MammoVan also reduces the financial barrier many women face in seeking breast health services.”
The MammoVan staff partners with community-based organizations, community health centers, work-site wellness locations and others to provide services for women in the towns where the MammoVan visits. The program also guides patients who receive an abnormal screening result through follow-up diagnostic mammography, biopsy and referral to breast oncologic services.
“For rural Arkansas, it’s really a phenomenal way to reach out and help people who might not get that help otherwise,” Wheelis said.
Wheelis knows the value of early detection: it helped save his mother’s life.
Janice Wheelis is a 30-year breast cancer survivor, and was treated at UAMS all those years ago by Kent C. Westbrook, M.D., distinguished professor in the UAMS College of Medicine. During a group tour of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute late last year, Wheelis had a chance meeting with Dr. Westbrook.
“It really choked me up a bit to see him,” Wheelis said. “Dr. Westbrook and Dr. Laura Hutchins are held in extremely high regard in our family.”
Wheelis’ grandmother did not have the benefit of early detection, and died relatively young from breast cancer. His aunt and cousin, however, have both benefited.
“I truly understand how differently the scenario can play out depending on early detection,” Wheelis said.
Other members of the FIS campus leadership committee, like Susan Nichols, senior legal counsel, were also extremely impressed with the Cancer Institute.
Nichols was treated at UAMS for skin cancer years ago.
“I was incredibly impressed with everybody I came in contact with, and of course the facilities are beautiful,” Nichols said. “The layout and décor makes it so comfortable for patients and their families. It definitely brings down your stress level.”
“This gift to the mobile mammography program not only represents FIS, but the community at large,” Wheelis said. “Our people really have a heart for giving, and we’re very, very happy to be involved and engaged in any way we can.”