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Massey Cancer Champion shares impacts of community-to-bench research: “We have a voice!”

May 24, 2024

Tonja Ancrum pictured at a breast cancer awareness event As a Massey Cancer Champion, Tonja Ancrum advocates for increased community engagement in Massey-led research, including clinical trials.

The Cancer Champions program at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center gives survivors and caregivers an opportunity to work alongside researchers. Founded in 2021 and rooted in earlier community-engaged research efforts, Cancer Champions are at the center of Massey’s community engagement in research (CEnR) initiative.

Through the program, each Cancer Champion:

  • Works in partnership with Massey researchers and educators to align research and training with community needs
  • Helps to share cancer and research information in local communities, including providing feedback to help researchers communicate their science to the community
  • Makes a difference through advocacy and cancer awareness

“Our Cancer Champions are critical in efforts to increase clinical trial enrollment and diversity in research and educate the community about early detection through regular screenings,” explained Maria Thomson, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program and director for community engagement in research at Massey, as well as associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the VCU School of Population Health. “There are now over 140 Cancer Champions enrolled in the program, and we are training others to ensure that every corner of our catchment area is represented.”

In observance of National Cancer Research Month in May, Massey spoke with Cancer Champion Tonja Ancrum.

How and why did you get involved in the Cancer Champions program?

I am a three-time breast cancer survivor and a Breast Health Research Champion. With these two significant titles, I have passion to be a part of initiative-taking preventive measures for the community.

The Bible says in Hosea 4:6, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Sometimes, people do not know what they do not know. And many times, they will not participate in research efforts like clinical trials or biospecimen donations because they do not see someone that looks like them participating. They may also go off old data — like what happened with Henrietta Lacks or the Tuskegee Experiment — or myths that they will not receive the standard care of treatment if they are placed in a placebo group.

How did you connect with Leslie Randall, M.D., MAS?

Katelyn Schifano, M.S., CHES, assistant director for the Cancer Champions Program at Massey, certified me as a Breast Health Research Champion and is aware of my advocacy and action in cancer prevention and education. She referred me to Dr. Randall. I then met with Dr. Randall about her current research study and clinical trial on endometrial cancer, and I became the face of the research.

Explain your partnership on the clinical trial.

I attend study meetings when I can. I share information about the research study and clinical trial, particularly with African American women who have had endometrial cancer and with others who may know someone who has had endometrial cancer. I have also advocated for the study to have more procedures take place in the patient’s home or at their local doctor’s office so they do not have to travel to the clinic for everything. I discuss with the Massey team different ideas based upon my experiences in other trials so I can help others. I have also helped Massey start conversations with endometrial cancer organizations so they can partner together on this study and future studies.

What positive impacts can a community member-researcher partnership have on communities as a whole?

This is major. When people see that you care - VCU as a whole and the researcher - they will get involved and tell others about it. I guess I can say it’s a sense of belonging. When people feel that someone cares about them, they do more, learn more and share more.

How will you continue your relationship with VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center?

As long as I am living, I will continue to be in the fight against cancer. I will be a bullhorn and megaphone to get the message out on all new bills, research and available clinical trials so I can be an integral part in finding a cure for cancer.

Why should other individuals give their time as Cancer Champions?

Because we must do this together. There is strength in numbers. In this program, I have seen so many wins, even small wins, which lets me know without a doubt, there is strength in numbers. We have a voice! In this race for a cure, it is BIGGER than us. So together, we must fight until we cannot fight anymore to find a CURE.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Cancer Champions Program at Massey can visit the CEnR website or email

Article and Interview by: Amy Lacey

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