Whether it’s a young adult with melanoma, a teenager with scaring acne or a grandfather with a non-melanoma skin cancer, Lynn A. Cornelius, M.D., loves that dermatology allows her to see an array of medical conditions and patients of all ages and from all walks of life.
“Although my clinical and laboratory focus is melanoma, the variety in dermatology is great, and I enjoy taking care of patients with all types of dermatologic diseases,” says Cornelius, chief of the Division of Dermatology.
“I believe that dermatology allows me the opportunity to positively affect the health of my patients and improve their lives, both of which are extremely gratifying.”
Patient Peter Tocco, who has seen Cornelius for various skin problems over the past decade, is quick to confirm that “his favorite doctor” does have an incredible impact on her patients’ lives.
“There is no better doctor than Dr. Cornelius,” Tocco says. “I have referred at least 150 patients to her. She has an amazing personality and is very approachable — she always makes you feel great. She’s a really sweet person and an incredible doctor.”
Kenneth M. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and chief of the Department of Medicine, agrees that Cornelius “is an outstanding physician, who takes outstanding care of her patients.”
Cornelius also enjoys the excitement of not knowing what challenges the next patient will present in the course of a busy clinic.
“From the standpoint of a diagnostician, dermatologists have a great advantage of being able to see a disease as it presents on the skin,” she says. “The true art, however, is in recognizing the medical implications of these signs, as many serious conditions present initially with skin manifestations.”
For instance, a patient may come in with what they believe are wart-like bumps on the skin that actually are lesions caused by incredibly high triglycerides.
In cases like this, dermatologists are often the first to diagnosis a condition — and Cornelius loves being on “the front lines of diagnosis.”
“We’re often the first ones to break the news to patients that they have cancer,” she says. “It’s so important to educate patients about skin cancer and the implications of each type of skin cancer,” she says.
For instance, there are major differences in the prognosis of melanoma versus non-melanoma skin cancer.
Cornelius explains that it’s “our job to educate patients with respect to what they may read about the disease on the Internet and prepare them for discussions with the oncologist or surgeon.”
She adds that another challenge she and her patients face is that people with skin diseases often are not perceived as having a serious disease.
“The degree that a skin disease may affect a patient’s quality of life is not insignificant,” she explains. “It often affects their ability to function both physically and socially at home and in the workplace.”
For example, a patient who has a chronic skin condition like psoriasis, effective treatment not only improves their outward appearance, but it also has an impact on the rate the patient may develop secondary conditions, such as arthritis, which is often associated with this disease.
Cornelius says she’s also drawn to dermatology because the field offers a great model for a multidisciplinary approach to medicine and the opportunity to collaborate with physicians and caregivers in diverse fields.
And this is especially true in Cornelius’ specialty, melanoma.
“Similar to most cancers, melanoma offers a truly great opportunity to practice interdisciplinary medicine,” she says. “It’s also very important for optimal patient care for patients to know their doctors are working in a coordinated fashion.”
As part of this effort, Cornelius and her colleagues dedicate time to the diagnosis and treatment of transplant patients with skin cancer and educating this special group of patients about their increased risk of developing this disease.
She explains that it’s now well recognized that many of the prescribed immunosuppressive drugs, necessary for the transplanted organ’s survival, reduce the immune system’s ability to not only fight infection but also certain types of cancer, including skin cancer.
In the solid organ transplant patient, the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer is anywhere from 10-65 times that of the general population, Cornelius explains.
“Some studies have even cited the increased risk as up to 500 times, and melanoma also occurs at an increased rate, although slightly lower,” she says, adding that skin-related cancer accounts for significant morbidity, and even mortality, in these transplant patients.
“Transplant patients may feel so overwhelmed by managing other aspects of their disease that in the scheme of things, continued unprotected sun exposure doesn’t seem to pose an important risk,” she says. “This is where we need to do a better job in educating patients and working with the transplant team to emphasize prevention.”
Another focus of Cornelius’ team is skin cancer-related translational research.
Cornelius and Anne Bowcock, M.D., professor of genetics, of medicine and of pediatrics, recently received a grant from the Siteman Cancer Center to investigate the genetic basis of melanoma.
The researchers are recruiting patients from the clinic with a melanoma, or a family history of melanoma or other cancers and are evaluating their genes for known as well as novel mutations.
“The melanoma effort at Siteman has grown substantially, in large part because of Lynn’s role as the focus group leader,” says oncologist Gerald P. Linette, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine.
“She’s an extraordinary clinician but she’s also a wonderful role model as a physician-scientist. She’s focused on asking the important questions in a complex disease.”
A model leader
Not only is Cornelius incredibly dedicated to her patients and to her profession, but she’s also a dedicated role model and leader.
Lynn A. Cornelius
Education: University of Delaware, B.S.; University of Missouri, M.D.
Hometown: Yardley, Penn.
Family: Husband, Joe, an executive at Monsanto, and two golden retrievers. “My husband is my biggest advocate,” she says. “Even though we live in different professional worlds, we offer one another a balanced perspective not only in our jobs but also in our daily lives. We’re different people who share common values and goals — and that’s what makes it work.”
Hobbies: The couple loves to travel, visit family, cook in their wood-burning pizza oven and run with their dogs.
Eugene A. Bauer, M.D., explains Cornelius’ incredible diligence coupled with her compassion for patients is what makes her a great clinician and leader.
“One of her greatest strengths is her capacity to stretch beyond her given field and really make a contribution to the institution as a whole,” says Bauer, former Washington University professor of dermatology, former dean of Stanford University School of Medicine and now chief executive officer of a private dermatology corporation.
“One of the big issues at an academic medical center is that people get wrapped up in their specific areas, but Lynn has great ability to stretch beyond her field and make a major contribution to the University.”
As one of only a handful of female division chiefs at Washington University, Cornelius’ colleagues assert she’s an amazing leader — both an inspiration and mentor to aspiring female physicians and a quintessential example of a great leader.
Cornelius stresses the best way to make an impact is to do a good job, regardless of your gender.
Polonsky adds it’s “extremely important to have strong female role models in the medical school so that students and residents can see that women can succeed at the highest levels in our institution,” he says. “Dr. Cornelius exemplifies such a role model.”
Dermatologist Susan B. Mallory, M.D., professor of medicine and of pediatrics, agrees Cornelius is an exceptional example of a role model and leader.
“As a doctor she is brilliant and dedicated. As a woman she has proven she’s dedicated and productive in a male-orientated hierarchy,” Mallory says. “She is the easiest person to work for because she is so inclusive and very giving to the entire division.”
All of Cornelius’ colleagues agree that the Division of Dermatology has grown under her focused and determined leadership.
“Under her direction the clinical dermatology programs have expanded substantially and the division is now on very firm footing,” Polonsky says. “She has also made some outstanding research recruitments and these faculty contribute to the academic strength of the division.”
Cornelius explains that the greatest advantage of being in a position of leadership is that she has the chance to develop and build her team.
“As a division leader you have the chance to help your faculty recognize their strengths,” she says. “As a leader you can facilitate your faculty and staff to pursue their individual goals while working toward the good of team.”
Cornelius’ patients and colleagues agree that her positive attitude and zest for life also help make her a great doctor — an attitude and drive she attributes to her parents, particularly her mother.
“Lynn’s greatest attribute is her enthusiasm for life,” Mallory says. “She is everyone’s friend. I don’t know anyone who does not like her!”