By Keysha Drexel
Dr. Helen Krontiras doesn’t take lightly her role in helping women live through what can be the darkest times in their lives.
And with the rapid advancements in breast cancer research and treatment, the co-director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Breast Health Center says she thinks a more personalized approach to women’s healthcare is more important than ever.
“The goal is to do what’s best for the patients and to understand that one treatment doesn’t fit everybody,” Krontiras said. “I take what I do very personally because these women are just amazing. It gives me so much joy when everything goes well and I see them healthy again, year after year.”
Krontiras, who grew up in Homewood and lives there now, is also a professor of surgery at UAB and is co-director of the Lynne Cohen Prevention Program for Women’s Cancers.
When she was a very young girl, Krontiras said, she told people that she wanted to be a doctor.
“I think all kids say that at one time or another, but for me, the idea stuck,” she said.
Krontiras is the daughter of John and Ottavia Krontiras, who in 1993 bought Nabeel’s and expanded the Homewood specialty market by adding a thriving restaurant. Nabeel’s is now owned by Helen Krontiras’ brother Anthony and his wife, Monica, and their parents are still involved in the business. Her sister, Madeline Krontiras Bader, is an attorney living in Atlanta with her husband Noah, who is also an attorney.
All three Krontiras children attended Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School and graduated from John Carroll High School.
Krontiras credits her teachers at John Carroll for instilling in her a lifelong love of learning.
“I had a really fantastic biology teacher in high school, and she was really encouraging and made us want to learn,” Krontiras said. “She taught us that science could be fun.”
Even before high school, Krontiras said, she had a natural curiosity about the world around her and spent a lot of time outdoors at the Lakeshore Drive house.
“I spent a lot of time playing outside and investigating ants and that kind of thing,” Krontiras said. “I did typical ‘girly-girl’ things, too, but I also had a tomboy side.”
After graduating from John Carroll, Krontiras attended Birmingham-Southern College and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.
She graduated from the University of Alabama School of Medicine in 1994 and completed her residency at UAB Hospital in 2000.
Krontiras was in medical school when she visited her aunt, an operating room nurse in New Jersey, during a trip that cemented her desire to be a surgeon.
“I went to work with her one day and had a chance to observe a surgery (from outside the operating room) and in the middle of it, my aunt looks over and sees that I’m eating a bagel,” she said. “She told me she knew in that moment that I would definitely be a surgeon.”
Krontiras estimates she performs about 300 breast surgeries a year. She treats more than 500 new patients each year, and as a senior scientist with the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, has collaborated on research to combat the disease.
Krontiras gives lectures on breast cancer throughout the Birmingham metro area and across the state to patient groups. She is a strong supporter of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and other breast cancer fundraising organizations.
Krontiras’ desire to serve others is something that manifested itself long before she helped people as a physician.
In high school, she taught Sunday school classes for special needs children and was a candy-striper. In college, she went on two service learning trips, one to Zimbabwe and one to South America.
“I’ve always volunteered because–and I know you hear this all the time, but it’s true–helping people is really rewarding,” she said.
Krontiras said she tries to involve herself in every aspect of patient care and treatment.
“These women are not just my patients–they are mothers and wives and sisters and daughters–and I have a responsibility to give them my best efforts,” she said.
Krontiras said she also has a responsibility to give her patients the treatment that is right for them.
“I think the biggest thing we’re seeing from the treatment side is a move toward more personalized medicine,” she said. “It’s about minimizing unnecessary treatments and finding the best plan of treatment for each patient.”
Krontiras said while every breast cancer and every breast cancer patient are different, all women diagnosed with the disease will generally have surgery, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.
But there are a few things all women can do to minimize their chances of ever having to decide on the best course of breast cancer treatment, Krontiras said.
“There are a few main things that all women can do to minimize their risks,” she said. “Early detection is key. Women need to be familiar with their breasts and do regular monthly self-exams. They need to get an annual mammogram starting at age 40 and have an annual clinical breast exam.”
And women need to talk to their relatives about family members’ history of breast cancer and other cancers, Krontiras said.
“I think it’s important for people to ask questions about their family health history and then talk to a physician to determine if more screening is needed,” she said.
While genetic risks for breast cancer have made headlines in recent years, Krontiras said she reminds women that only 10 percent of all breast cancer cases are attributed to inherited factors.
“And about 90 percent is what we call sporadic,” she said. “I want to stress to women that they can go out and have genetic testing and get a negative result, but they should take it a step further and get the genetic counseling to go along with the testing so they really understand the results.”
Some of the biggest reasons women are at risk for breast cancer have nothing to do with genetics, Krontiras said.
“The major risks come with diet and lifestyle factors,” she said. “I find it startling that 30 percent of the cancer deaths are attributed to lifestyle factors. That means if people just ate better and exercised more, about 3,000 lives in Alabama could be saved this year.”
Krontiras said she, like all women, sometimes finds it difficult to follow the sound advice to eat right and exercise.
“Recently, I realized that I hadn’t been doing these things very well myself, and I struggle to take care of myself like all working moms do,” she said. “But I’ve put myself back on the list, so to speak, and have been to the gym three times this week. I don’t know the secret of juggling it all, but like all women, I need to make my health a priority. If women don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of our families.”
Krontiras’ family includes her husband of 11 years, Dr. Toren Anderson, a pediatrician, and their two children, 9-year-old Alina and 4-year-old Ian.
The couple adopted the children from Russia when Krontiras learned she was unable to have children.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. God always has a plan, even if we don’t see it at first,” she said. “I have the most amazing children. I treasure the time I get to spend with them, watching them grow and change.”
And when she walks her daughter to school or plays with her son, Krontiras knows there’s a mother just like her who is fighting breast cancer with everything she has for a chance to enjoy those kinds of moments with her own children.
“Thinking about what my patients go through and going through it with them can be exhausting emotionally because you give a lot of yourself to do everything you can to help them get better,” she said. “But I don’t feel it’s a burden. I feel like you’re supposed to serve others. That’s what it’s all about.”
Women’s Health Checklist
While she obviously encourages her patients to have clinical breast exams each year during their check-ups and mammograms every year beginning at age 40, Dr. Krontiras said there are many other screenings women also need to monitor their health.
Here’s a women’s health checklist from Krontiras for women of all ages. Your doctor can help you develop a more specific screening plan if needed, Krontiras said.
Blood Pressure Screening
Women should have their blood pressure checked every year beginning at age 20 because high blood pressure can often go undetected without frequent monitoring.
Body Mass Index Screening
The Body Mass Index is based on a woman’s height and weight and can indicate if a woman is overweight. A BMI of 25 or above is considered overweight for women. A healthy diet and regular exercise are encouraged for all women, regardless of BMI.
Bone Mineral Density
Women who have entered menopause need to have a bone mineral density test to screen for evidence of osteoporosis. This is especially important for women with a family history of osteoporosis.
Regardless of their weight, women should have their cholesterol levels checked every five years beginning at age 20 and more frequently as they get older to make sure they are not at risk for heart disease, the number one killer of women over the age of 25.
Women should have a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer and other problems every five to 10 years beginning at age 50. Women with risk factors or a family history of colon cancer may need more frequent tests.
Regardless of their age, women need to have regular dental exams, as untreated dental disease can lead to serious health problems such as infection, damage to bone or nerve and tooth loss. Women should brush twice a day and floss at least once a day.
By age 40, women should have their eyes checked every one to two years to screen for cataracts, glaucoma and early signs of diabetes, even if they have normal vision.
To check for early signs of cancer, all women need to have a liquid-based Pap test every one to three years. Women with risk factors for cervical cancer may need to have more frequent tests.
Women with a personal or family history of skin cancer and those with multiple atypical moles should be screened for skin cancer by a dermatologist. All women can lower their risk of getting skin cancer by avoiding sunburn, limiting sun exposure, avoiding tanning beds, wearing sunscreen and sunglasses and having any suspicious moles checked out by a doctor.