When asked how she spends her free time, Rebecca Driscoll says she thinks about cancer pretty much twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. While she may also love to cook, design floral arrangements for events, and create jewelry, Rebecca’s fierce dedication to helping people with cancer is immediately evident to anyone who encounters her.
Rebecca joined Cancer Commons as CEO in July 2022—the continuation of an extensive career that has included cancer diagnostics sales, strategic business development, and founding two cancer-focused companies.
In this interview, she shares what drives her and how she strives to make a difference.
What led you to a career in the cancer field?
When I was 10 years old—and I don’t know why I said this—I told my mom that I was going to be involved in cancer or AIDS. That’s not what I ended up studying in college; I studied sports psychology and sociology because I was a swimmer for UCLA. As a full-scholarship athlete, I didn’t have time to work, so I graduated with no job experience and was told I’d probably have to work in retail. Fortunately, a biotech company took a chance on me.
My first job was in sales at a startup involved in cancer detection! And I had such an affinity for it. I loved learning about how cancer is diagnosed, which is directly tied to cancer treatment and care. I loved teaching doctors about immunohistochemistry testing and how it could improve diagnosing cancer.
Here I was at 23 in the cancer field, just as 10-year-old me predicted.
Where did your path take you after that?
A turning point at that job was when I got to spend a day with a pathologist and see the test I was selling in action. I got to see that the pathologist actually guides the surgeon on how much tissue is taken out during a surgery—how radical that role was. I got to see how the pathologist then guides the care team by outlining the diagnosis.
I remember walking out of the door of the lab that day, understanding how critical the role of a pathologist is, how critical it is to obtain a highly precise diagnosis, and I decided to make it my mission to help others understand, too. That was how I could contribute and change the field.
I progressed into leadership roles in sales and business development, with a focus on strategies to get the newest testing options to patients more rapidly. I led major efforts in data sharing and real-world evidence generation in the areas of genomic sequencing and targeted therapies. I founded a company to help patients understand and access their diagnostic and treatment options in real time.
I also have an intimate perspective on cancer, as I have frequently provided guidance and support to close friends and family members facing their own diagnoses.
How did you arrive at Cancer Commons?
When my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer last year, I decided to take a step back from work to help take care of him. We had three months before he passed in February 2022, and I’m grateful for the time I was able to spend with him and be there for him.
I went back to the drawing board in March and realized that what I love most is helping people. That’s what I’m most passionate about. I happened to be speaking with Dave Daly, a Cancer Commons board member. He said, “You know, I have this opportunity, and I think you’re the right fit. And I want you to meet Marty.”
Marty Tenenbaum, PhD, is of course the founder of Cancer Commons, and after speaking with him, I agreed to join the organization as CEO. Because this is what I love doing; I love being on the front line, essentially. And to support patients in real time as best I can.
While you don’t work with patients directly, you support the Cancer Commons scientists and navigators who do. How would you describe that team?
Our Patient Services team members could be doing any job they want, anywhere else. They are highly trained, degreed, brilliant people with distinguished careers. And they have chosen Cancer Commons—because what they love and what they’re passionate about is directly helping patients.
Often, a researcher works at the lab bench and produces papers but never really gets to see the impact of their work. The fact that our scientists want to apply their skills—across molecular biology, genetics, population health, and more—to help patients is phenomenal. And the fact that we have an oncology clinical nurse specialist who retired then chose to come here to expand our navigation program and help more people? You can’t replace that with anything.
No matter what I say about their degrees or skills, what’s really at the heart of it all is their incredible passion and the attitude of service that they have for other people.
Can you share more about your personal experience with cancer?
Yes, unfortunately it’s all around. Back in 2009, we lost my uncle to stage four pancreatic cancer within two months of diagnosis. My mother had stage three uterine sarcoma. My father had stage four melanoma and was basically told to go home and die; I brought him home, sought advanced diagnostic and treatment options, and he survived eight years.
Both of my grandmothers had cancer. One of my grandmothers had two rounds of colon cancer and one of melanoma, and she lived to 100. We lost my father-in-law this past February, and my husband is a stage four cancer survivor. I’ve lost friends—young friends who were misdiagnosed, too.
Each personal experience of cancer has ignited my fire more and more. Helping people with cancer is what I know how to do. And as time goes on, my commitment to helping people with cancer only grows more fierce.
What is your guiding principle when it comes to helping people with cancer?
Do the right thing for each individual. I consider how I would want to be taken care of, or how I would want my loved one to be taken care of. Understanding the person and their needs and the relevant options to make the most informed decisions. That’s the best I think we can do for anyone, and it’s also the most ethical approach.
Have you had any particularly memorable moments in your time so far at Cancer Commons?
Because Cancer Commons reaches people directly online, we rarely get to meet the people we help in person. But I recently had the honor of meeting a six-year-old boy named Reece, whose family had turned to us for help. When they had exhausted standard-of-care treatments and were out of options, they ended up in our hands. And it was hugely rewarding to see in person how much we had helped that family.
Meeting Reece and his family drove home that the way you change the world is one person at a time. And that leads to them sharing their story and us helping one more person, and then one more person, and so on. When you get to see them and the impact you’ve had on the person and their entire family, it is so powerful.
What are your hopes for the future of Cancer Commons?
First, there is the straightforward goal of helping more patients and caregivers, which can be especially challenging as a nonprofit. I’m hopeful that we can continue to expand our collaborations and establish additional educational programs, like our webinars, to benefit the broader community of patients. I hope to leverage our expertise and partnerships to reach more patients in underserved areas; 80% of cancer patients are cared for in the community setting, so there is a huge opportunity to make a big difference and build a sustainable organization that can serve patients for years to come.
What are your hopes for the broader future of cancer diagnostics and treatment?
What gives me hope is how many tools we now have. Thousands of new diagnostic tests hit the cancer scene each year. But it is absolutely impossible for physicians to keep up with all of the tests that might be relevant for their patients.
My hope is that, as a field, we will be able to develop better technology that can educate physicians and patients in real time about new tests and treatment options that are most relevant in a more streamlined way.
Right now, of course, Cancer Commons does this work manually for individual patients. We look through the literature, we look at each individual case, what’s been done before, what has not yet been done. And we have some tools to help us, but nothing yet exists to scale the kind of work we do to help exponentially more patients. I am hopeful that will change.
What would your message be to the people who read this?
It takes bravery to step out and say, “I need help.” And to be willing to talk to people you don’t know who could possibly help you. So first, I just honor the people who have turned to Cancer Commons and their bravery to find that help. And I thank them for entrusting us with their cases.
And for readers who have not yet contacted us, I encourage you to have the same bravery and desire to seek further help. Because cancer is difficult. It’s confusing. I tell people it’s like being dropped off in the Grand Canyon, and you’ve never hiked a mountain before. At Cancer Commons, we are skilled at searching for those tools that you need to get up that mountain. We are here for you, and we thank you and all of the supporters, collaborators, and partners who help make it possible for us to change people’s lives.