Tomika Bryant spent years in the lab working as a biochemist in the pharmaceutical industry. After going through treatment for triple negative breast cancer, she has changed careers and now uses her platform as a social media influencer to reach underrepresented voices in the breast cancer community.
Tomika was recently named a Komen Scholar – an advisory group of distinguished leaders in breast cancer research, clinical practice, public health, advocacy and other relevant fields, who provide expertise and guidance to Susan G. Komen on research and mission programs
She spoke with Komen about her passion for helping others in disadvantaged communities.
Q: You had been reviewing breast cancer research for Susan G. Komen even before you became a Scholar. How have you been able to encourage others to participate in research?
A: We have a lot of people who are reflecting back on historical events that led to African-American communities being involved in unknown scientific experiments. They’re not looking at the possibility that “maybe things have changed.” And, for me, I look at myself as the voice of the voiceless. I want to make certain that whenever any research is happening, those clinical scientists are also looking at disadvantaged communities.
Q: As a biochemist, a breast cancer survivor, a member of the African-American community and an influencer, you have an incredible perspective. How do you use your voice to speak up and make a difference?
A: If we don’t have a seat at the table, no one is listening. I want people to hear a different and more holistic perspective. Others will see this diverse representation and be more willing to speak to me about their personal experiences.
I’m a (breast cancer) social media influencer. Sometimes it’s something as simple as posting, “Don’t forget to get your mammogram.” I can’t give people medical advice, but I can talk to them through the experiences I’ve had from that first mammogram until now. I use this personal perspective to share opportunities about breast cancer research or to just help ensure those diagnosed maintain hope. I had triple negative breast cancer and I see people all the time saying, “Why aren’t they doing anything for triple negative?” And my response is, “There are researchers constantly at work. There’s so much research happening.” I always point thrivers to published research, so they know it is a fact.
Maybe because I am a science person, I know where to go and how to prune relevant information. I am also exposed to people who have no idea what pertinent information is available through ongoing clinical trials and research. I’ve been privileged to have seats at the table. I’ve been honored to be included in patient and advocacy panels. Based on the amount of information I am exposed to I can assure people there is critical research happening. The world has not given up on us. They are still trying to find a cure. And so, for me, that is the most gratifying part of my day.
Q: How have you used your experience with breast cancer to help educate others?
A: People don’t think research is occurring for triple negative breast cancer. The reality is triple negative is a special case. It is because it is so unique that sometimes the research is just not successful, but the research hasn’t stopped. I remind other co-survivors of the continued research to give all of us hope. It gives me hope – hope that I’m not alone, for one thing, and hope that somebody is out there trying to save our lives.
People are usually afraid of getting second and third opinions. They believe that the first doctor could be offended. When you’re dealing with your health, and it’s a life-or-death situation, it’s not personal. So, if that doctor, at that moment, is unable to do what you need to do, and they can’t give you the answers that you need, then you’ve got to go elsewhere.
Q: How did you make the decision to change careers from being a biochemist to being a social media influencer?
A: It’s so crazy, and especially when I still talk to people that I worked with at the pharmaceutical companies, they’re like, “You are in your element, you’re loving it.” One the thing that I didn’t like about my job was being in the lab alone. I’m a people person and I like to talk. I would be in the lab with the radio playing, dancing around the lab and talking to myself. It is funny in hindsight, but people would say “You look crazy.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, but it’s okay.” Now those same people say, “Yeah, you always needed that social piece, and now you have it. And then your message can be amplified more because now you have a whole new message that’s coming out, and people are listening.” So yeah, it’s been extremely gratifying.
Q: The Black Women’s Cancer Collaborative is another passion of yours. Can you tell us more about it?
A: It is a cancer collaborative, and it is not specific to breast cancer, it is literally all cancers. We are just trying to be a voice for the voiceless and make sure Black women understand their options.
We host live panels with different groups. We’ve done them with a few pharmaceutical companies, and we brought the messages to them. We’ve said, “These are the questions that Black women have. This is what they want to know. They want you to look at them as a whole person, not just that name on the list or that double blinded study number.”
We also talk to pharmaceutical companies about the importance of including people in research. We are given opportunities to help them understand it is not just about the medicinal aspects. We can offer key elements to include to help women diagnosed with cancer. We also shine light on the data itself. The data may not be complete, as it could be missing entire communities. This simple information helps remind those clinical research organization why the same drug given to similar people, in all aspects except race, has different outcomes. The effects could differ simply because the study didn’t consider the whole person and their lifestyle.
Q: Is there anything you want to add to the current conversation about breast cancer that isn’t being discussed?
A: Mental health is paramount. I don’t understand why it isn’t the first conversation doctors have with their patients after the diagnosis. Yes, there is urgency in getting surgery or making the decisions about what treatment plan is going to work, but mentally, that urgency could kill people. I love that I can bring differing voices to the medical professionals and clinical researchers, but there is so much more we still must do to eradicate cancer in our society.