When it comes to choosing a career, they say do what you love. Dr. Kathleen G. Allen, a surgical oncologist and breast cancer specialist at Morton Plant Mease, is fortunate enough to infuse her passion for surgery and medicine into a second career.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology, and later by a master’s in education, Allen initially was a teacher at an all-boys school in Kentucky, where she was born and raised. But growing up around doctors – both her father and uncle were surgeons – she felt the pull toward the medical world.
“I guess it was genetic for me,” she said.
So she headed back to her alma mater’s College of Medicine in the late 1990s. A non-traditional student, she was not only one of the only females in her class, but also one of the oldest.
“A lot of people would ask me if I was sure I wanted to do it, since I wouldn’t be a surgeon until my late thirties,” she said. “I had 11 years of training – the long haul – ahead of me before I could practice. My thought was that if I’m going to be in my late thirties, I might as well be doing something I enjoy.”
Following a six-year general surgery residency at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, Allen accepted a one-year fellowship focusing on diseases of the breast at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. She was drawn to breast cancer because she saw how complicated it could be and wanted to be able to better explain its intricacies to her patients. As a detail-oriented person, this focus gave her surgical career more “depth rather than breadth,” she said.
Her next move, to Morton Plant Mease to work under the internationally acclaimed Dr. Peter Blumencranz in 2008, was a no-brainer.
“It was a terrific opportunity for me here,” she said. “It’s rare you find a community hospital with such a high academic standard. It’s a little jewel of a hospital.”
Since Morton Plant focuses on research, partaking regularly in various national clinical trials, Allen has seen firsthand recent advancements in her specialty field.
“It’s nice to be part of something bigger,” she said.
Some of the highlights have been the hospital’s work on partial breast radiation, which offers patients less exposure to radiation while treating only the tumor rather than larger areas.
“This helps people who would otherwise have a full mastectomy,” she said. “We aim for the minimally effective treatment, while in the ’50s and ’60s they opted for the maximum tolerable [treatment].”
The hospital also has been integral in work on genetic testing on how likely tumors are to metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body, which means less chemotherapy is administered to patients, Allen said. She’s also especially proud of her work developing a rehab program, the Power Program, for her patients after surgery.
During a typical workweek, Allen finds herself splitting her time between the operating room and seeing patients in her Clearwater office. She performs surgery at Trinity North Bay Hospital, where she also keeps office hours, in addition to Morton Plant. Admittedly, she thrives in the operating room, but what really inspires her work is her personal connection with each of her patients, she said.
Had she kept her focus more generalized, she likely wouldn’t maintain contact with her patients or get to know them once the surgery was over. But breast cancer is a more hands-on, involved field, she said. Allen keeps tabs on her patients’ progress, meeting with them even several years after the surgery, weaving her way into their stories.
“Each patient is individual, different and interesting,” Allen said. “It’s a privilege to be involved in a critical time period of people’s lives. Each patient is like a wonderful Christmas gift.”