June, 2024
June 2024
OncoDaily Talks: Dialogue with Gevorg Tamamyan, hosted by Neil Ranasinghe
May 28, 2024, 08:14

OncoDaily Talks: Dialogue with Gevorg Tamamyan, hosted by Neil Ranasinghe

OncoDaily Talks gathers people worldwide to discuss challenges in cancer care. We share creative solutions and insights from top professionals.

Today our guest is Prof. Gevorg Tamamyan, together we discussed what it’s like being a pediatric oncologist in Armenia, how is cancer care managed in Armenia. He talked about his personal journey of becoming a doctor, studying abroad and his favorite favorite food.

Gevorg Tamamyan

Gevorg Tamamyan is the Editor-in-chief of OncoDaily, Head of the Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Armenia, Chairman and Professor of the Department of Hematology and Pediatric Oncology at Yerevan State Medical University, CEO of the Immune Oncology Research Institute, President-Elect of the Pediatric Oncology East and Mediterranean (POEM) Group. He is also the Adviser to the Rector of YSMU and to the Director of the Yeolyan Hematology and Oncology Center.

He is a Co-Founder and Board Member of the Armenian Association of Hematology and Oncology, City of Smile Charitable Foundation, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Cancer and Crisis, the Former President of the Harvard Club of Armenia.

Recently Dr. Tamamyan has been selected as the President-Elect for SIOP Asia 2024.

Neil Ranasinghe

Neil Ranasinghe is (BA) is the parent of a child who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 at the age of four. Since then, Neil has actively contributed to several cancer charities, using his expertise as a Technical Author, his English degree, and his leadership skills. He is also a Senior Technical Author at Thomson Reuters.

Neil co-founded PORT, a group of parents that reviews documentation for pediatric oncology clinical trials, offering insights from a parent’s perspective. PORT has reviewed documentation for over 30 clinical trials.

Neil co-chaired the SIOP Global Health Education and Training Working Group, helping clinicians from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) access educational and training resources to treat children with cancer.

00:00 Introduction
2:00 About Prof. Tamamyan
3:40 Childhood cancer care in Armenia
9:55 Whats it like being a pediatric oncologist in Armenia?
12:03 Doctors brain drain in Armenia
14:15 About Oncothon
18:25 Prof.Tamamyan’s experience of studying abroad
22:47 About Siop Asia presidency
27:47 Thing that Prof. Tamamyan most excited about that’s coming up in future
31:45 Second global summit on war and cancer?
35:43 Favorite food
38:12 Final words

The transcript of Oncodaily Talks: Dialogue with Gevorg Tamamyan, hosted by Neil Ranasinghe

Neil Ranasinghe: Hi, my name is Neil Ranasinghe. I am a parent of a survivor of childhood cancer. She had cancer a long time ago, and the reason we’re here today is I’m talking to Gevorg, who a lot of you know. But I find what I want to try and help the pediatric oncology community is to have a better understanding of Gevorg rather than just the people in the no-understanding.

So I’ve got a few questions for Gevorg, and hopefully, we’re going to have a bit of a discussion, and this will help all of you understand what’s going on in K’s world and how it all relates together.

So let me introduce Gevorg. He’s the editor-in-chief of OncoDaily, he’s a pediatric oncologist from Armenia, and much, much more, which we’ll come to. Gevorg, would you like to give a small description or introduction to yourself?

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you very much, Neil. Thanks for interviewing me. I’ll keep it very short. As you said, I’m a pediatric oncologist based in Armenia. I lead the Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center here, and I’m the editor-in-chief of OncoDaily. The rest, I think we can read in the bio, so we can move forward.

Neil Ranasinghe: Okay, thanks very much. Let’s get started. You’ve been very modest here; you’re involved with lots of stuff that we’re going to come to shortly. We’re just going to cover some of the key stuff, but first of all, I’d like to get to know a bit more about you, so I’m going to ask a few more questions related to you and your career.

My profession is I’m a technical author in the private sector; I’m nothing to do with being a clinician, although, as you know, I do lots of voluntary work. So I think there’s quite a big difference between how people in healthcare think and how people outside healthcare think. So when or why did you decide to become a doctor?

Gevorg Tamayan: Thanks for this question, Neil. As far as I remember, I always wanted to become a doctor. My uncle was a doctor, he was a surgeon, and I think having his role model in front of my eyes made a lot of influence on me, and that’s how I decided to be a doctor.

Later on, to choose pediatric oncology, I was greatly influenced by my mentor, Dr. Samvel Danelian, who is the founder of the modern pediatric hematology-oncology in Armenia. All the developments in our country, in this field happened under his supervision and under his leadership.

Neil Ranasinghe: That’s good. I was going to ask you why you chose to go into pediatric oncology, so you’ve got me there. Right, fabulous. So you’ve been telling the world and the community about what’s been going on in Armenia, so we’re starting to get better knowledge of it. Can you tell me what it’s like for a child that has cancer in Armenia?

Gevorg Tamamyan: Armenia is one of the warmest countries in the world, and I really mean what I say. It’s a wonderful place to live and to be, but as with many other developing countries, it has its own limitations.

Our survival rates currently are around 75%, although in the United Kingdom where you reside, it’s up to 85%, so there is some gap. But of course, there are countries which are less fortunate, where the survival is from zero up to 60%. So, being a developing country, I think we have made huge progress. It’s not just my opinion but also the opinion of professionals who visit Armenia. They are impressed with our progress and what we are doing.

I won’t hesitate to say, and I’m not going to be modest about it, that in Armenia, pediatric hematology-oncology and hematology, in general, are the fastest developing fields in medicine, not only in medicine but in general. I think it’s one of the most advanced areas in medicine. This progress is the result of teamwork—a huge team effort. We have a wonderful team of dedicated people working in the field, and it shows in the results. Of course, there are limitations, but for a developing country, we are making huge progress.

In recent years, we started receiving patients from other countries with more significant limitations. In Armenia, for a child diagnosed with cancer, we do our best to ensure they receive the same treatment that a child diagnosed in London, Paris, or Boston would receive. Thanks to the help from charities and the governmental basic healthcare package, we strive to cover almost everything for the patients, so they don’t have any out-of-pocket expenses.

We even provide meals and are planning to build a family house, which does not exist yet in the country, but we are making progress in that direction. There is still a lot to do, but I would like to give you just one example, I calculated the rate of pediatric hematologists-oncologists per 100,000 people, and it’s now higher than in the United States.

In the last four years, we admitted 14 fellows into our three-year fellowship program in pediatric hematology-oncology. We set a very high bar for entrance and selected the best students from medical school. These fellows have had opportunities for training not only here but also abroad.

We have many Harvard graduates who have completed one-year programs in cancer research, leadership, or medical writing. Our staff have trained in diverse locations, from China Medical University in Taiwan to Harvard Medical School and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

It’s challenging for me to keep track of all our staff’s achievements. Just two days ago, one of our doctors won the first prize at the St. Jude conference in Memphis. Additionally, our psychosocial head, Alysa, was elected to lead the psychosocial and well-being task force at St. Jude. Every day, there are great news and achievements, and I’m really happy about that.

Neil: That’s pretty impressive. I know these things don’t happen by accident; it must have been a lot of hard work from you and your team to make these advancements happen, I don’t think many people realize the level of progress we’ve achieved in improving healthcare for children with cancer in Armenia. It’s truly encouraging

Gevorg Tamamyan: Yes, it’s a huge teamwork.

Neil Ranasinghe: One of my questions was what’s it like being a pediatric oncologist in Armenia? I’m guessing it’s not going to be that different from in a high-income country? I’m guessing or you said key very big lots of key differences

Gevorg Tamamyan: Certainly, there are differences. The resources here aren’t as abundant as they might be in, let’s say, in Chicago or in New York or somewhere in Paris. It’s not the same resources, and you don’t have access to all these new possibilities. Many things are—I mean, the doctors are doing things they wouldn’t be doing in other circumstances, so it makes life a bit more difficult.

But I think being a pediatric oncologist in Armenia is very good. You make a lot of good work, and people appreciate it. You feel yourself satisfied with what you are doing. You are making progress; you are making huge contributions to society. And I think it’s really great that being—you know, it’s being in a small country and in a developing country.

It’s not just the negative part; in the small country and in developing countries, there is a huge room for you to create and to advance. So, in my opinion, and I see really that in the near future, Armenia is going to become a local hub for cancer and blood disorders for the whole region. And by whole region, I mean a big area, not just like surrounding two, three countries. And we are moving in that direction.

Neil Ranasinghe: Interesting. That’s interesting because I was going to ask Is there a problem with staff from Armenia wanting to move abroad? Are you experiencing that problem?

Gevorg Tamamyan: We have zero brain drain. Almost all of our doctors got training abroad and travel regularly. I’m having trouble keeping track of who is flying where and I don’t really know in the clinic right now who are right now there or they are presenting somewhere in the globe or traveling for work. So, you know, I got excited and I missed your question. Can you repeat? 

Neil Ranasinghe: I just wondered whether it was an issue, but you’re saying with the brain drain

Gevorg Tamamyan: No one is leaving the country, no. Everyone is saying this is a problem with many, many other countries, but yeah, yeah, and we… I mean, we also have in all the… I mean, a majority of different areas, we have this brain drain, but we have zero brain drain in our field. But just vice versa, we have also people coming. For example, we have a great one, one of our great fellows who just finished and got an attending position. Mar, she came from, uh, from Russia. She was living there.

She is Armenian by origin, but she was living there, and she came here. We have our head of IM oncology lab, which we are just establishing, a translation research lab. She is one of the leaders in the field, and she works in France leading a huge organiz… I mean, a huge team of experts. And I mean, she is between us here and France, and so it’s like, we… we try to make sure that we create an atmosphere that, uh, that people come and work here, and they enjoy the work they are doing, right?

Neil Ranasinghe: Fantastic, okay. Um, I just want to talk about the Oncothon that was held earlier this year. That was absolutely fantastic. It was such a… it’s great to see new ideas and new ideas that are working and seeing you and Shushan been on online for hours, and it, literally, hours and hours, and both of you were great still moderating and putting up with it problems and questions. So, I’d like to ask, how was it? How was it for you? And how did you come up? Was it you that came up with this idea, this… So, how was it, and who came up with it?

Gevorg Tamamyan: Shushan is another superstar. Superstar, and she got the best training, and she, uh, I mean, I was fortunate to be, uh, I mean, she was my student when she was doing oncology at the Medical University, then she became as a fellow, and then she got during the fellowship program she got trainings in Italy for one year, then in Austria another half year, then one year training at Harvard for this effective writing Executive Education, and many more.

I, I even don’t remember what kind of trainings she did. And now she is also the, she is leading the, she’s the editor-in-chief of our newly launched OncoDaily medical journal, scientific journal, so she’s going to lead it, and I’m sure under her leadership, it’s going to become one of the top journals in the field.

So, um, the about the Oncothon, the idea came when we were, I was doing an interview with Dina Crow,  the amazing president of another amazing foundation, Rally Foundation.

So, she suggested we interview OncoBioSciences founders, Ricardo and Cesare, and that’s how it began. We discussed it with Berta, their chief of the staff, another great, great person, as the founders are.

So, we did, uh, we had a discussion and instead of interview, we said, I don’t remember whose idea came first, but we were having this discussion, we said, let’s do a global Oncothon, 24-hour OncoThon. That’s how we started.

And within 24 hours, we had more than 100, like, speakers from all over the world, leaders of the societies, head of some Cancer Centers from different parts of the world, Japan, China, India, Russia, Italy, France, UK, Jordan, Africa, Americas, everywhere.

So, basically, we had all the coverage, and regardless of any geographic, uh, distribution or any other differences, so everyone was united on that exact day, on the International Childhood Cancer Day, for that reason to raise awareness about, uh, our problems in the pediatric oncology field.

Neil Ranasinghe: Did you get any sleep during those 24 hours?

Gevorg Tamamyan: Oh, I got some few hours, like maybe two, three hours sleep at that time. Shushan was doing, uh, and then I woke up. I remember it was early morning, around 4 or 5 a.m., and I was, I think that if I’m not mistaken, the last interview was with, with Eric, Eric Small, the president-elect of ASCO, another great mentor of mine. And then we had, we had one of the foundations, and then we closed, if I’m not mistaken, because it was like, it was a full day. Yeah, yeah, it was incredible. It was absolutely amazing to be part of. We’re going to continue it, right? Yeah, good, going to make it much bigger.

Neil Ranasinghe: So, you’ve mentioned some of your staff and your experiences about working abroad and gaining experience there. A couple of things I’d like to ask you about that. One is, is there any advice you can give to people on how to get those experiences abroad? And secondly, I can imagine it’s quite hard being away from home. What’s it like being away from home for quite long periods?

Gevorg Tamamyan: It’s very important to have training outside your home. It changes your way of thinking, you discover new places and people. Understanding how people think outside of your narrow surroundings is crucial. If someone is searching for opportunities abroad, they will likely find them. It’s about persistence. For example, I used to spam everyone with my emails asking about training opportunities, and although my English was poor at the time, I kept at it. I always give the example of how I applied for the ASCO leadership development program multiple times before being selected. Persistence is key; if you don’t get something, it just means you need to be more persistent.

As for being away from home, it can be difficult initially, but it’s also an opportunity to meet new people, make friends, and create wonderful memories. Throughout my training journey from Taiwan to various places in Europe and the United States, I’ve met amazing people and made lasting connections. Even now, I still keep in touch with many of them, and I know I have friends in different places whom I can turn to for advice or support. So, while being away from home has its challenges, the experience and connections gained make it incredibly rewarding.

Neil Ranasinghe: In my opinion, I think what you say about persistence is very interesting because I think that applies to whatever profession you’re in because there’s roles I’ve applied for and I’ve applied for once and I haven’t got the role and I’ve just thought okay that’s that role isn’t for me and maybe I’ve applied twice but I’ve never never applied more than twice so that’s interesting that’s it’s all about persistence really thought-provoking actually don’t give up yeah. Yeah, right.

So, I’d like to congratulate you on becoming the president-elect for South Asia. It’s very early days for you, but I wonder if you want to talk about what sort of things you’ve got planned for CCI Asia or what your focus areas are going to be.

Gevorg Tamamyan: It’s very early to kind of say how it’s going to go, but at least in my plans is to expand the membership first of all. I mean, South Asia is like Asia in general; it’s the largest continent in the world. Yeah, look, we have India, we have China, it’s already, I mean, the majority of the world population, right? And that’s why Asia should be more active, in my opinion. And there are a lot of things we can do when we are all together.

That’s why one of my first priorities is to expand the membership from every country in Asia. We should have very active members who become part of SIOP’s mission—the mission of curing every child, treating every child—so that no child stays without treatment.

And to make sure that we kind of break the disparities, together we can solve all these problems. That’s what my mission is for the term I’m going to be there, and I’ll do my best to do that. Of course, there are other things as well, but I would just focus right now on that one. I would just stress this one: that we need everyone’s involvement. Every, I think we should make it, I mean, SIOP, it’s the main organization for pediatric oncology professionals.

It’s the International Society of Pediatric Oncology, and we should make it like, so-called, mandatory or something like that, that everyone should feel, “Oh, I mean, how is it that I’m a doctor or I’m a nurse working, or I’m a survivor, or I’m a caregiver, and I’m not a member of SIOP?” Yeah, so we need to make it like that, that way SIOP Asia will become the leading source of changes, and we will be able to make these changes all together. I’m pretty sure.

Neil Ranasinghe: Yeah, the potential is huge, isn’t it? With countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, China, and India, the populations are big, and there’s a big workforce as well.

Gevorg Tamamyan: The potential is huge, isn’t it? With countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, China, and India, the populations are big, and there’s a big workforce as well. There are 150 members from India, if I’m not mistaken. Wow, that’s impressive. We have 150 members from Armenia, and we are only 3 million people, whereas India is one and a half billion. We need to change this paradigm and advocate for greater involvement.

SIOP is an amazing organization, and I’m really proud of being a member of SIOP and the SIOP community. It is truly an honor for me to become the president-elect for SIOP Asia, and I’ll do my best to move it forward. Whatever we do, we do it for kids with cancer.

Neil Ranasinghe: I think having something like targeting an increase in membership is good as well because you can measure it. We can see if the efforts we’re making are working, and if not, we can do something different.

Gevorg Tamamyan: So we need to knock on everyone’s door. We need to go to every single country and have very active members. We need to have doctors, nurses, psychosocial workers, foundations, survivors, caregivers, patients, patient advocates—everyone in the field. Even people who just want to contribute to our mission. We need to bring all these people on board because this way, we will be able to make a better future for pediatric oncology.

Neil Ranasinghe: Well, this leads perfectly onto almost one of my last questions. If you need something or want something, what would you ask for now? What would be your request, or what would you like to tell people about? Because I know there’s lots going on. You’ve mentioned ASCO to me, the upcoming Oncothon, and the Onco Daily Journal. So what would you like to tell people about, and what would you like to ask of people? What’s the thing you’re most excited about that’s coming up in the future?

Gevorg Tamamyan: I’m excited about whatever we are doing. Every day brings different things, and I come to the hospital early in the morning and go home quite late, but we do so many things, and I’m excited about all of it. I won’t just solicit one of them, but in general, if we generalize, I hope—and maybe I’m an optimist, but maybe I’m a bit more—I really hope that there is peace, first of all. Last year, in December, we held the first Global Summit on War and Cancer, which was very well attended.

The opening address was done by the Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros, and Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan also gave an opening remark. She was with us all these days when, for three days, we were doing the summit, and people from different parts of the world were presenting.

You know, as pediatric oncologists, we can fight for one child’s life for several years, and then a bomb comes and kills thousands. I don’t even know how to call that. I think we need to talk about it more, and we should not leave it to this fragile globe to the politicians only.

The pediatric oncology community and oncology community in general, and doctors, nurses, patients—I mean, we know the value of life. So we need to become the advocates, not just for health but also for peace and everything good in the world. Because when we leave it to the politicians only, it’s like mixing up all over the globe. And maybe I came to a little bit more philosophical to your question, but that’s what I would like to mention.

Neil Ranasinghe: No and I agree and you can advocate and argue for the case of the children or the patients with cancer and it’s not supporting or not not supporting either side is is it it’s just advocating for ceasefires or whatever or for better care rather than saying one side is wrong and one side is right because then it gets very polarized and very difficult and it’s purely for the for for the good of the children or adults with cancer is is there another one is there another one of these Summits coming up?

Gevorg Tamamyan: The second Summit we are just in the process of deciding where it’s going to be, the second one we because the second one we are going to do hybrid that’s in our plans there there is some suggestion to do it in Europe or Under the Umbrella of one of the countries who want to boost it I’m not going to disclose it now, but there is some discussion but we’ll see, I mean, we are in the discussion process right now and yeah OncoDaily is growing you were asking also about the OncoDaily, it’s growing it in a short period of time.

We established in May 2023 right one year ago, exactly one year ago, and and in one year it became one of the leading Global platforms and when I read the comments from different people, when I read the comments from different people from other countries I mean how they like it from different institutions.

Just recently I was by a chance I was listening the podcast from a great human great scientis, Oliver Bogler from NCI, he is leading the can cancer Training Center there so I didn’t know that he was talking about OncoDaily. It was funny, I mean, I was listening his podcast and then I found out that he was talking he was giving a recommendation that I mean I would recommend you to follow OncoDaily.

And she mentioned that he loves reading us and we got these comments every day, every single day we get a lot of positive energy because we see that people value what we are doing people people appreciate what we are doing it gives us a lot of strengths and I’m pretty sure in in the coming years you will see that it’s going to become a leading not just like within the oncology Community but leading one of the leading platforms of bringing great news and great resource media resource globally.

Neil Ranasinghe: Yes, it’s amazing what you’ve achieved just in the space of a year. It’s now central to any social media, anything that’s going on in pediatric oncology, then not in pediatric oncology only. Not pedology, just 1%. Yeah, right, oh, maybe two or five because I’m biased, right? So is anything oncology related.

Gevorg Tamamyan: Yes, we try maximally cover anything related to oncology from all over the globe. And it’s not just that. It’s like covering, let’s say, New York area or Washington DC area or Brussels area. So, no, it’s covering everywhere including those places but also starting from rural places in Africa, Asia, or elsewhere, South America, going up to the top-notch academic centers. So, everywhere.

And we are trying to give voice to everyone. Of course, our aim is to make sure that whatever is published there is evidence-based. So, it’s not like we follow the evidence-based science, of course, medicine.

Neil Ranasinghe:  Yeah, okay, so finally my last question and something quite a bit lighter so what’s your favorite food or what would be your favorite meal on say who or where would you like to eat it because I know food appeals to lots of different people and I I don’t know anything about Armenia I’m ashamed to say.

Gevorg Tamamyan: It depends, it depends when and where. Like yesterday, with my beautiful family – my beautiful wife and two amazing daughters – we were in one of the resorts, which we had a one-day off. So just in the evening, the day before, we drove around 8:00 p.m. there and came the other day. So we were thinking what to eat. I said, let’s have this, um, we call it omelete with tomatoes.

This is very ordinary, very cheap food. And then, on a separate note, like this, uh, greens with onions and cheese in Armenian bread. I mean, with some salad, with tomatoes and cucumbers. So this is like very, I would say, non-fancy food but makes a lot of sense. But I mean, so it all depends, really.

I like good food but it all depends when, where, right? I love a lot of ice cream, so when I was in Taiwan, I love this, maybe it’s going to be advertisement, but I won’t hesitate to tell this, but I love McDonald’s Sundays with the chocolate. And I was eating it like two, three times a day and some of the staff over there were calling me Mr. Ice Cream.

Neil Ranasinghe: Yeah, it’s quite cheap in Taiwan as well, isn’t it? The ice cream.

Gevorg Tamamyan: I don’t remember, it was 12 years ago, right? It was, but it was like many years ago, right? Fabulous. Okay, that’s brilliant. So, I’ll just quickly wrap up. So, for me, the key thing to take away from here is persistence, and that’s really made me think about how many times I apply or try and do stuff. And so, everyone else, look out for OncoDaily, look out for next year’s Oncothon, and for the Summit in war Congress. So, and follow, is it Oliver Bogler? Did he say his podcast?

Gevorg Tamamyan: Yeah, Oliver Boer, right? Yeah, his podcast is on the NCI channel, cancer.gov, right? Okay, have a look. Great, he’s a great person. Yeah, he was the senior vice president at MD Anderson at the time when I was a postdoctoral researcher, and later on, we made a huge, very nice conference in Armenia. Yeah, so I’ve known him for quite a long time. 

Neil Ranasinghe: Fabulous and and to hear about where what you’ve done in Armenia in the last few years as well is really is really exciting and really encouraging so on behalf of all the parents of children with cancer and all the children with cancer thank you so much for everything you do and everything you will be doing and it’s been great fun talking to you today.

Gevorg Tamamyan: Thank you so much it’s honor for me, goodbye.