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Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine
Mayo Clinic RochesterVIEW PROFILE
Christine Klassen, M.D. (I ’15), trained at Mayo Clinic in Arizona and is now on staff at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, focusing on the Breast Clinic. She’s involved with efforts to study breast cancer in neurofibromatosis patients who, it’s recently been discovered, are at high risk for breast cancer at an early age. She felt drawn to work in breast cancer because her mother is a survivor of stage 3 triple negative breast cancer.
My maternal grandfather and an uncle are neurosurgeons. Both of my parents are geologists. I was interested in basic science and chemistry in college and thought I’d be a chemist. Then I realized how much I liked working with people. Medicine was a good mixture of basic science and people exposure.
My husband, Aaron Klassen, M.D. (EM ’18), is an emergency medicine resident at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. I encouraged him to pursue residency at Mayo Clinic so I could stay with Mayo, and he matched in Rochester. He’s from Canada, so he likes the weather in Minnesota and access to hockey. We’ve been in Rochester for a year and really like it.
My mom had stage 3B triple negative breast cancer at age 48, so I have a personal interest in breast cancer. I saw that Mayo Clinic in Rochester has a Breast Clinic, which presented an opportunity to participate in breast health without requiring further subspecialty training, which would have been difficult with a husband in training and three children. About 80 percent of the patients I see are in the Breast Clinic, and the rest are general medicine.
My mom’s situation had a lot to do with my being drawn to breast cancer. Breast cancer generally has good outcomes, which was appealing to me as a physician.
As an undergrad, I worked in a genetics lab. My degree is in molecular biology. I’m very interested in the genes that increase risk of breast cancer. I like the appeal of finding something new.
In my chief resident year, I participated on a paper studying triple negative breast cancer and gene mutations on the tumor. Our group recognized a gene that was amplified in 30 to 40 percent of those patients. Now trials are underway to target that gene, and they’re seeing good results. Because my mom’s breast cancer was triple negative, it’s rewarding to have been involved in early research that showed a possibly effective treatment.
When neurofibromatosis patients began showing up in the Breast Clinic, we didn’t know why. They didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. Then we discovered European studies that indicate a significantly increased risk of breast cancer, especially at early ages, in the neurofibromatosis population. There is almost no data from the U.S.
Mayo Clinic has one of the largest neurofibromatosis clinics in the country. Most people with neurofibromatosis type 1 who get breast cancer are in their 30s — well before the suggested age for breast cancer screening. The disease is rare and increases risks of various types of cancer. I’m working with Dusica Babovic-Vuksanovic, M.D. (PD ’96, MGEN ’98), chair of the Department of Clinical Genomics, to start a database of neurofibromatosis patients so we can evaluate the rates of breast cancer and clinical characteristics in this group.
Last spring, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network updated its breast cancer screening guidelines. Screening recommendations for people with neurofibromatosis type 1 include starting at a younger age and having breast MRI in addition to mammography.
It’s more predictable now. My schedule is pretty much 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with rare night or weekend call.
I had my first son during my last year of medical school, and started my intern year with a 5-month-old. That was challenging. I had my second son two weeks after completing residency. I was chief resident and had more flexibility but wasn’t able to take much time off. I went back to work five weeks after he was born. By the time I had my third son, I was on staff and took a longer maternity leave. Our sons are now 7, 3 and 1.
It can be difficult to keep on track with publishing because research often happens during off-hours. I’m lucky because the first two years you’re on staff in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, you get 20 percent dedicated time for research. That has helped immensely. I have a fabulous mentor in the division, Karthik Ghosh, M.D. (CLRSH ’04), who has helped me decide on research projects.
When I finished my chief resident year, my husband had a year of medical school left. I wanted to work without tying us down geographically while he had residency ahead. Circle the City in Phoenix needed a medical director. We’d been exposed to Circle the City during residency at Mayo Clinic in Arizona — we could volunteer there. I applied but didn’t think I’d get the job because I was right out of residency. I got the job.
Circle the City provides medical respite care for the homeless. They live at the facility while we take care of medical issues such as wound care and complicated medical issues. It was very rewarding work, helping people at the worst times of their lives. Seeing the patients’ struggles influences how I practice today and makes me passionate about the current health care debate.
I’d love to be involved with something like Circle the City in Rochester. Mayo physicians are involved with the discounted breast clinic in Rochester, Hawthorne Clinic, and breast screening through the Salvation Army. It’s fully staffed right now but, once there’s an opening, I’ll volunteer.
With three kids, I don’t have a lot of spare time. I take the kids to activities. I play piano. It helps me get away from science and relax for a bit. Earlier in my life I thought I might play professionally in an orchestra. I went to a music camp for the summer for piano. I find the practice for music similar to that of medicine. With more practice, things come more easily and, instead of focusing on the individual notes, you can work more on the art.
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