Tiffany J Drummond of Opinionated STEM On The 5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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You are not alone. You have support from your oncologist and healthcare team, your family and friends, and even strangers! If you don’t- or feel you don’t, have anyone to turn to, there are support groups out there to be a resource and shoulder to lean on through your journey. There will be lows to the point you may want to give up. Let those who love and support you be there to lift you up.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?

In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany J. Drummond.

Tiffany has over 17 years of experience in clinical research regulatory affairs; over 15 working for cancer centers across the NYC metro area. A patient advocate by passion, she founded the brand Opinionated STEM to provide education and expertise in areas of healthcare and science & research. Motivated by her own lack of enthusiasm and intimidation with STEM education as a young adult, Tiffany fuses “sass + science” to capture her audience and shatter STEM stereotypes. She received her BS in Management from UNC-Chapel Hill and MS in Professional Writing from New York University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Sure, I am originally from Wilmington, NC. I come from a nuclear family of six: my parents, two sisters, and one brother. However, I grew up with grandparents, aunties, uncles, a host of cousins, and-now, four nieces and a nephew. I had a typical childhood filled with vacations to Disney World, amusement parks, and summer visits to my dad’s family in Baltimore, MD. I was never an outdoorsy kid. I loved to read and actually enjoyed school. Ironically, science and math were never my strong suit; I took required courses only! In reflection, real world experiences have given me an appreciation for STEM that I do not think I could have achieved academically. As an adult, I love reading about science (math, not so much).

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I began my career as a regulatory affairs assistant for a contract research organization in North Carolina. I was promoted within the year to regulatory affairs associate. It could be due to my outstanding performance, or that another associate resigned- we’ll never know. Nevertheless, I began developing clinical research consent forms. To do this, I needed to understand complex research protocol information such as scientific background, mechanism of action, study assessment procedures, known toxicities, etc. I became immersed in learning as much as I could about clinical trials because I had unique access to novel research that could potentially benefit targeted populations. Since beginning my career, I have observed drugs go from First in Human to FDA market approval. It is an amazing process if one has the patience since the typical life cycle of a clinical trial averages 8 years (or longer). I am a Taurus and patience is my virtue…

After two years, I decided to move to NYC. I remained in regulatory, but switched from industry to the academia. I found my niche in cancer clinical trials within medical college/teaching hospital settings and have expanded my regulatory knowledge in this disease area for the last 15 years.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

Whenever I received a new clinical trial to review, the scientific background always stated disproportionate cancer mortality rates for African-Americans as opposed to other racial groups. And, according to the American Cancer Society, this is true for most cancers. As an African-American woman, I felt compelled to understand why and share what I learned along the way. My profession became personal. I thought back to members of my family who succumbed to the disease. In 2014, it hit close to home when my mother was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I explained all of the clinical trials that were available, but her distrust of science is something I knew had historical and cultural implications. Speaking about clinical research is something I am passionate about because I have witnessed it prolong life in conditions such as cancer and want to educate about the potential benefits, though not guaranteed, of clinical trials participation.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I resigned from my position as a regulatory director to pursue other career opportunities: one being an educator. I recently joined an organization as an instructor to prepare future clinical research professionals with the skills needed to succeed in this growing research & development industry. I also founded my brand Opinionated STEM with the mission to be an outspoken force within the STEM space through social media and public speaking engagements. Not long ago, I wrapped up a virtual workshop series called “Our Stories, Our Flow” with nonprofit organization Women’s Voices for the Earth, presenting information about the toxic chemicals in feminine hygiene products. Finally, I am working on a passion project: the Opinionated STEM physician planner. When I took my mother to countless doctor visits, it was near impossible to keep up with all of the specialists, medications, appointments, and follow-up instructions. I know from experience what patients with chronic conditions need to stay organized and empowered. Stay tuned!

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?

I believe that anyone who has been affected by cancer is an authority on the subject. Your experience is your expertise. In my specific case, aside from my personal experience, I am a leader in clinical research regulatory affairs and any information I offer is from my personal and professional experience in the regulatory space only. I am not a medical doctor or licensed professional. One should always consult with a licensed medical professional if they suspect they are having symptoms associated with cancer, or symptoms out of the ordinary for their health in general.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?

In the most basic terms, cancer is a mutation of cells within a certain area of the body that replicate and outnumber “normal” cells.

What causes cancer?

What causes these abnormalities is often the center of research, but I would say there is not always an obvious reason. It could be diet, lifestyle, the environment, inherited from parents; but there is no definitive answer to this question. In my experience, I have witnessed “healthy” people get cancer and “unhealthy” people live cancer-free. And, because of health disparities and unequal access to healthcare, this question leads to more questions and becomes one huge snowball of mystery. Good conversation starter though, what else ya got?

What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?

I will leave specifics for the oncologists, but in lay terms the major forms of cancer originate as 1) solid tumor(s) in an organ/tissue in the body or 2) cancer of blood cells, referred to as a hematologic malignancy.

I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?

There are so many unknowns to give blanket advice. Of course there are studies that show certain habits (lifestyle and diet) lead to an increased cancer risks, so please take heed to these warnings.This is why research is so important when we discuss cancer prevention.

How can one detect the main forms of cancer?

There are various tests and exams available to screen for certain types of cancer, depending on factors such as age, gender, and risk level. I advise visiting the CDC website to understand the types of cancer screenings that are available and supported by the agency. More importantly, speak with a member of your healthcare team (i.e. primary care or family care physician) and discuss if there are any screenings you may need to schedule.

Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?

Cancer does not have to be a death sentence. There are tens of millions of cancer survivors in the United States and across the world. Screening and early detection has definitely impacted favorable odds of survival. From a personal standpoint, I would say this also depends on whether you are actively make informed health decisions. I cannot say that my mother would be here today had she consulted with an oncologist soon after being referred, but we will never get that chance. If you notice anything different about your body, even if you are not in pain, an inconvenienced doctor visit is a small price to pay for continued health.

Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?

I would tell you, but it’s confidential. Just kidding! Seriously, I do not have any specific innovations to mention but I do know there are thousands of clinical trials in development, actively recruiting participants, and even in the final stages of data analysis. I am always excited to see the next big news in cancer care and can’t wait to hear what researchers are discovering.

Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?

Being a source of support aids in healing; but, support has many faces. It could be a listening ear or giving space. It can be shaving their head after rounds of chemotherapy -as I did for my mother, or shaving your own in solidarity. Keeping a sense of normalcy is also important. There are days your loved one may feel helpless; help them. There may be days when they are fiercely independent; let them go. Cancer affects more than the patient, but this term can often be taken out of context. As the loved one, we cannot imagine the toll it takes aside from what we physically see. In my experience, I think my mother’s healing was something she had to achieve on her own and my family and I were just a vessel to guide her through.

From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?

The previous answer applies to this question as well. Don’t assume they always want to talk about it. If they do, absolutely engage; if not, enjoy a nice cup of coffee together or take a walk. If willing, you can accompany them to doctor visits. For two years, I flew home for a week once a month to drive my mother to chemotherapy. There were other family members and friends who would have gladly accepted this task, but that is how I showed my support. This example is extreme, and-due to the pandemic, may not be possible; for the foreseeable future, but think of ways you can support without being intrusive.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

I’ll discuss the one I am most passionate about. 1) Cancer clinical trials treat you like a guinea pig. Not true. Yes, there has been deception and unethical practices in the historical context of clinical research, but there are regulations in place to ensure your rights are protected. And, I can say with confidence, cancer trials are designed with what are called “stopping rules.” If you are experiencing certain side effects or no clinical benefit, you will be taken off the study. To go further, there are rules in place in which the entire study will be stopped should data suggest the proposed therapy is not safe or effective. I really would like those affected by cancer and their loved ones to consider clinical trials as an option when appropriate. Again, this should always be discussed with your oncologist to determine the best management plan for your condition. I could go on and on, but if you ever want to learn about clinical trials, you can find me on LinkedIn and I would be happy to tell you all I know.

Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Clinical trials. Aside from the potential to receive novel, oncology therapeutics not commercially available, there could be other cost-effective benefits (without coercion). Not in all cases, but no-cost assessments such as office visits and imaging scans or travel reimbursement may be available. Also consider participation as an altruistic means to help other cancer patients in the future.
  2. Alternative and holistic medicine. This is not to replace your treatment plan as determined by your oncologist/healthcare team. However, the emotional and physical toll of cancer brings on a myriad of symptoms including stress, nausea/vomiting, sleep problems, anxiety, and pain. Exercise, medication, yoga, acupuncture, and music/art therapy are just a few techniques and holistic alternatives in alleviating symptoms associated with cancer.
  3. Honesty is the best policy. Please be 100% honest with your oncologist and healthcare team in order to achieve optimal care. Ask questions; no question is a stupid question. Do not feel as if you are wasting their time and do not feel rushed. The team is there to support you through your road to cancer survival. This can only be achieved if everyone is on the same page and understands where you stand clinically to move forward. Do not overlook or dismiss symptoms as not important.
  4. You are not your hair. Hair loss is not a welcome effect of chemotherapy and radiation. It is also not selfish or vain to be anxious or hesitant to part with your locks. There are alternatives such as cold caps to reduce hair loss and you can always rock a scarf/hat/wig. But if you choose to be a bald baddie, go for it! It will grow back. And if not, you are still beautiful/handsome!
  5. You are not alone. You have support from your oncologist and healthcare team, your family and friends, and even strangers! If you don’t- or feel you don’t, have anyone to turn to, there are support groups out there to be a resource and shoulder to lean on through your journey. There will be lows to the point you may want to give up. Let those who love and support you be there to lift you up.

YOUTUBE VIDEO URL https://youtu.be/jDJG_r4GwmU

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would be honored to give a TED talk about my experience as a researcher and how the loss of my parents and other family members and friends continue to impact my professional and personal mission.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me @OpinionatedSTEM on all major social media platforms. You can also add me to your network https://www.linkedin.com/in/tiffanydrummond/

Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor