Lorena Patricia Suarez-Kelly, MD, was 4 years old then. A little girl growing up in the Mexican state of Michoacan. A curious child fascinated by how people who weren’t feeling well, or who had been injured, or whose children were ill, came to receive medical help from her grandpa, a physician often paid in chickens or beans by grateful patients or parents.
The little girl’s fascination got to the point where she would do her best to hide behind a chair or other office furniture to see how grandpa would help the visitors to his office, which was an extension of his house. Time and time again grandpa would find his beloved Little Lorena sneaking around to see what was going on, and, exasperated, he would tell her she must leave, that it was time for her to go play with other children.
One day, her heartfelt protest of her latest eviction struck a nerve with her grandfather. “No me saquen! You tambien voy a ser doctor y ocupo aprender!” she cried. In other words, “Don’t kick me out. I need to learn. I’m going to be a doctor one day.” Impressed, her grandpa decided to let Lorena regularly sit in the corner of his office and observe the practice of medicine.
Today, it is apparent that the child knew what she was talking about even before she started school. Make no mistake: Little Lorena is now the accomplished Dr. Lorena Suarez-Kelly, a gifted surgical oncologist and cancer researcher who recently joined the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV as an assistant professor of surgery.
She’s the kind of medical professional who will talk enthusiastically about the strides made in cancer and breast cancer research – she completed a prestigious two-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) T-32 Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Tumor Immunology – and then, just as enthusiastically, smoothly transition into how maintaining her Mexican culture alongside America’s enhances both her medical practice and her everyday life.
In this Breast Cancer Awareness Month and with the recent conclusion of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, having Suarez-Kelly share her insights on cancer and culture seems particularly appropriate.
She says her journey to becoming a respected physician-researcher received a boost more than 30 years ago when her homemaker mother and car salesman father moved the family from Mexico to Omaha, Nebraska, where an aunt lived. Like so many immigrants, her parents uprooted the family in search of better educational opportunities for their children, which eventually numbered five.
“My dad had visited my aunt and saw the advantages in Omaha for children,” the doctor says.”I was six when we moved, and I did not speak a single word of English. But I took ESL classes [English as a second language] and became fluently bilingual by fourth grade. I learned to read in both Spanish and English. My parents made sure we maintained our Mexican culture, but also allowed us to adapt to our new American culture. This made our childhood so fun.”
At home, Suarez-Kelly says Spanish was only spoken. “I am so glad that my parents had this rule, otherwise I am sure I would have forgotten a lot of my Spanish, and I would not be able to speak Spanish as an adult. Being bilingual has really helped me as a physician. It helps me better connect with my Spanish-speaking patients and makes them feel more at ease and comfortable during their care. I find that I am able to ensure that they fully understand their disease process, the treatment plans, and I answer all their questions. I find that patients really appreciate this. I find it very rewarding to be able to do this.”
Suarez-Kelly blossomed intellectually in high school, a top honor student who was accepted during her junior year of high school into the Summer College for High School Students at Stanford University. At the University of Rochester in New York, where she earned her undergraduate degree, she once again had the chance to enhance her education, participating in a distinguished overseas research program at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at University College London. The program would spark her interest in cancer research and cancer care.
It was an interest that only grew stronger as she completed her MD at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, and during her general surgery training at Georgia’s Memorial Health University Medical Center. Her coveted NIH research fellowship at the Ohio State University focuses on the use of immune modulators to treat cancer and enhance the actions of antitumor therapies while her clinical fellowship in complex surgical oncology at the same university provided her with a wide breadth of experience in the surgical multidisciplinary management of cancer patients.
Suarez-Kelly has gained recognition for her work in cancer care and treatment, authoring several book chapters and publishing over 20 articles in peer-reviewed journals that shed light on novel cancer treatments, surgical techniques, patient outcomes and advances in cancer care. She left a flourishing private practice in Wisconsin for the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, deciding to transition to an academic surgical oncology position where “I could channel my passion for advancing medical knowledge and merge my surgical expertise with a dedicated focus on medical education and cancer research.”
Except for skin cancer, she points out that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. “It is so important that women are talking to their doctors about breast cancer screening. Screening aims to find cancer early before symptoms start. Breast cancer found early is more successfully treated, decreasing the risk of dying from it.”
About 42,000 women die each year from breast cancer.
Ongoing research, Suarez-Kelly says, is looking at ways to enhance breast cancer screening options and early detection of the disease. One option underway, she notes, “is 3-D mammography, which takes images from different angles around the breast and creates a 3-D-like image,” which can give clinicians a truer picture to analyze as well as the ability to create a more definitive treatment plan.
She says another area that breast cancer researchers are looking at is adding targeted therapies to hormone therapy for advanced or metastatic hormone positive breast cancers. “These treatments could help keep patients off chemotherapy and extend survival,” she says.
Now married with three young children, Suarez-Kelly continues to appreciate the Hispanic culture from which she derives so much joy, not the least of which is the food.
“I now love learning my mother’s recipes, cooking with her and for friends. She is an amazing cook – tacos, carnitas, enchiladas, sopes, pozole, huevos rancheros, frijoles, tamales, you name it,” says the doctor, who calls her mother’s cooking a “love language,” one that the surgical oncologist aims to learn.
As she has grown older, Suarez-Kelly says she loves even more that in Mexican culture there is a major focus on family. “Mexican family units are traditionally large with involvement and support from all family members. My dad is the 13th out of 13 kids and my mom is the seventh out of eight children. When we have a get-together there are lots of aunts and uncles, more than 70 people there.”
It really helps, the doctor says, that “we all know we have each other's back no matter what. We will line up to help each other out.”
It is a good tradition, she says, in any culture.