Dr. Kristin Zorn knew from an early age she would go into medicine. She comes from a long line of medical professionals. However it wasn’t until her third year of medical school, while doing a rotation with gynecologic oncology, that she drifted towards the specialty.
“I came back and did an elective rotation my fourth year of medical school, and right at the beginning, I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Zorn says.
“I was really drawn to the mix of options we give the patients. As gynecologic oncologists, we operate when appropriate, we prescribe chemotherapy when appropriate and we recommend radiation when appropriate. Then we help triage the patient’s care once the cancer diagnosis has been made.”
Zorn is director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine and associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Division of Genetics. She has been practicing medicine for 12 years and came to UAMS more than four years ago.
The Birmingham, Alabama, native earned her medical degree from the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham, where she completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology. Following her residency, she was a gynecologic oncology research fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. She then completed a clinical fellowship in gynecologic oncology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
In addition to the clinical care of gynecologic cancer patients, Zorn is also the director of the clinical trials program.
“That means developing trials that will be available to patients to enroll in, and a big part of that is what we call ‘cooperative group trials,’” she says. “These are groups sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and help to establish what we feel like are the most important clinical trials for our cancers.”
Zorn also specializes in cancer genetics, which helps identify families with an inherited risk for cancer that’s higher than typical patients. If identified, “We can try and intervene in those families and prevent cancer or diagnose it as early as possible,” Zorn says.
One such instance is the family of Betty Fortner. At 64, Fortner went for her annual mammogram. “They had me complete a family history,” Fortner says, “and I revealed my mother had died of cancer at age 41, my grandmother died of breast cancer at age 65 and three of my mother’s four sisters had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“They were doing a study on the gene that causes the BRCA mutation. I gave them a saliva sample to test. In December, they informed me that I was BRCA1 positive and recommended that I meet with a gynecologist. After the consult, I was referred to an oncologist.”
Fortner quickly learned there are not many gynecologic oncologists in Arkansas, but was told she could find one at UAMS.
“I called Dr. Zorn’s office and had an appointment within 10 days,” Fortner says. “They were very aware of the implications of the BRCA gene. At my first appointment, I met with a genetic counselor who recorded all of my family history. Dr. Zorn examined me and explained the importance of having a preventative hysterectomy, even though there were no indications of any cancer.”
Together they decided Fortner would have the surgery and then meet with breast cancer specialists.
“Dr. Zorn assured me that she would have a pathologist in the operating room just in case she found anything. When I woke up in recovery and realized that I had been in surgery for about six hours, I knew she had found something.”
Fortner was first diagnosed with stage 1C ovarian cancer, but then the pathology report revealed cancer within her fallopian tube. “At this point I was stage 2A,” Fortner says. “Most ovarian cancer patients do not find that they have the disease until they are stage 3 or 4.”
Zorn explained all of the implications for Fortner and recommended chemotherapy. “She, her staff and the wonderful nurses in the infusion center created a plan specific to my needs,” says Fortner, who finished her treatments in July 2014.
“Dr. Zorn counseled me from the very beginning on the importance of notifying family members concerning the BRCA gene — not just in my immediate family, but also cousins, both male and female,” Fortner says. “Dr. Zorn was ecstatic when she learned my daughter had tested negative for the BRCA mutation.”
Six of Fortner’s brothers insisted on testing to learn if they had the gene and could have passed it to their daughters and granddaughters. Three were positive, and with that information, families can consider appropriate care.
“One cousin decided to be tested, and after learning she had the gene, she had surgery and no cancer was found,” Fortner says. “Although I believe knowledge gives you power to make decisions, not everyone believes this way, and that is their choice.”
Melinda Simonson, a genetic counselor at UAMS and colleague of Zorn, says she admires Zorn’s advocacy, both for patients to have access to clinical trials and state-of-the-art care, and for their team. “She is smart, compassionate and honest with our patients,” Simonson says.
As for gynecological cancer numbers in Arkansas, Zorn says the state is part of a national trend showing an increase in endometrial cancer cases.
“In the time I’ve been in practice, that’s gone from 50,000 cases a year in the U.S. to 60,000 cases a year, and it’s still rising,” Zorn says. “The main reason is that it’s an obesity-associated cancer, and in our country we’re seeing more and more obesity-related cancers.”
The other Arkansas detail that stands out to Zorn is a high number of cases of cervical cancer — especially cases that turn deadly. Zorn says the HPV vaccine used to prevent cervical cancers is widely underused.
“That was a miracle in women’s health care that I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime, and to have it happen so soon after I started in my practice was just incredible,” Zorn says. “But it’s even more incredible to watch people pass up that miracle.
“It’s a gift you can give your children and your grandchildren to reduce their risk of developing cancer down the road,” she says. “We have to take advantage of that when they’re teenagers so they can get the benefit of it when they’re in their 30s and 40s and 50s.”