Women Leaders at MSK: Tiffany A. Traina

Tiffany A. Traina, Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering

Tiffany A. Traina cares for women with breast cancer at MSK.

Tiffany A. Traina is an optimist. A lifelong seeker of the bright side, she looks for the positive, for the lesson learned, in every situation, even the most difficult ones. It’s a quality that has served her well throughout her life, from coping with the early loss of her mother to cancer to overcoming the personal and professional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an only child growing up in a suburb of New York City, Dr. Traina was extremely close to her parents, especially her mother, who was her first role model. “I learned so much from my mom. She battled cancer more than once at an early age, but she didn’t let it stop her,” she remembers. “She had a career, a great sense of humor, and a verve for life, and even though she died young, she lived a quality life, seizing every moment she could.”

Her mother taught her to live life without regret and to maximize every opportunity. But following that advice is not always easy. “I want to be involved in everything and never feel like I missed out,” she says. “I strive to get the most out of every experience and learn from it. Maybe things don’t always go as I would have expected or hoped, but I always tend to look for the silver lining and learn from that experience.”

The Road to MSK

Tiffany A. Traina at graduation

Graduation day

Her mother’s cancer diagnosis was the catalyst that drove Dr. Traina to pursue a career in medicine. By the time she started college at Cornell University, she was already planning to specialize in oncology and directed considerable energy toward that goal. As a medical student at Weill Cornell Medical School she took every available oncology elective, studying cancer from a broad perspective. After graduating in 1999, she completed her residency in internal medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell and then joined MSK as Chief Resident in the Department of Medicine, ultimately staying on as a Hematology and Oncology Fellow. She was promoted to Chief Fellow in Medical Oncology and hired as a physician on the Breast Medicine Service in 2006.

Having experienced cancer within her own family, Dr. Traina knows it is transformative for both patients and their loved ones. An individual may receive a diagnosis, but the impact of cancer is far-reaching, influencing the lives of multiple people. 

“I think this realization cemented the priorities that I have in caring for my own patients,” she observes. “I want to cure their cancer, but I also want to ensure that they are making care choices that align with what’s most important to them in terms of their values and goals, and ultimately partner with them to live their life to its fullest.”

A Commitment to Patient Care During the Pandemic

Dr. Traina’s dedication to her patients was one of the guiding principles that sustained her during the most harrowing months of the pandemic. She played a pivotal leadership role in partnership with Rosanna Fahy, Senior Vice President, Hospital Operations, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Director of Nursing at the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care, and others in the restoration of MSK’s outpatient clinical activity while COVID-19 was still rising across the region. “We recognized that we had to continue to provide access to care in a safe way and adapt quickly to meet the needs of both our existing patients and those newly diagnosed with cancer, while facing all the stresses, uncertainty, and constraints of a global pandemic,” says Dr. Traina.

That meant doing whatever was necessary to provide continuity of care and serve as a trusted and constant resource for patients and their caregivers, whether it was in person at MSK’s main campus, closer to home through MSK’s regional network, or via telemedicine and home monitoring technology.

Continuing to offer cancer care required a coordinated multidisciplinary effort and collaboration with employees from across the organization, including clinicians, nurses, and departmental and hospital leadership, as well as experts in infection control, information systems, environmental services, pharmacy, lab medicine, and human resources, among others. 

“People rolled up their sleeves, took action, volunteered, and flexed outside of their usual work roles,” recalls Dr. Traina. Oncology fellows pitched in to provide support for inpatient services where needed; nurses, advanced practice providers and physician assistants underwent retraining to help provide critical care support; and DigITs staff deployed technology for home monitoring of MSK’s COVID-positive patients.  

“This is what I love about what I do and where I do it,” says Dr. Traina. “We’re better as a team and we are stronger when we work together. It’s that enthusiasm and commitment to doing what’s right for our patients that I am really proud to be a part of. I feel privileged to work with such outstanding colleagues.”

As an organized, achievement-oriented person who likes clear goals and a plan, Dr. Traina says that she has always struggled with ambiguity. COVID made everything murky and unclear — the usual processes and methods couldn’t always be applied during an unprecedented pandemic. But the urgency of the moment demanded action and innovation — she learned to pivot and forge ahead, making decisions despite tremendous uncertainty. 

“There are times when we are not going to have all the answers, but if you remember your core values and put them at the forefront, they will guide your way forward, even when there isn’t a clear path,” she says.

Core Values for Success

Dr. Traina appreciates the opportunity to acknowledge the important but under-recognized role that women have played throughout history, despite significant challenges. “By no means are those obstacles entirely gone but shining a light on women’s achievements helps inspire young women today to see that there are opportunities for them,” says Dr. Traina.

At the same time, she makes the point that, ultimately, gender shouldn’t matter. “It’s less about elevating one gender and more about just taking gender out of the equation altogether,” she explains. “Every role should be an opportunity for any individual based on their passion and their abilities.”

Dr. Traina sees these concepts flourishing in the next generation. She shares the example of her daughter, who is 12 years old and enjoys ice hockey. When she started middle school last year, the school offered only a boy’s ice hockey team – but her daughter was undeterred. “My husband and I said, ‘Just go for it!’ So, she went out for the team and she made it!” Dr. Traina says proudly.

Since then, the school has stopped referring to “the boy’s hockey team.” Now it’s just “the hockey team.” 

Her daughter made an important, perhaps life-altering realization, according to Dr. Traina: “It’s OK if you don’t see somebody else who’s done it first. You can be the first.”

A Notable Woman of the Law

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whom Dr. Traina admires greatly, was well known for her groundbreaking work around gender equality. A fellow Cornell alum, she was also an important role model for Dr. Traina and, much like her mother, inspired Dr. Traina’s constructive approach to life. “I respect the fact that she envisioned a brighter future, saw it as possible, and made history because she worked so hard to bring people toward that vision,” says Dr. Traina. “It took a lifetime to get there, but she persisted.”

She also admires Justice Ginsberg’s thoughtful focus on community. “She said she wanted to make life a little better for people,” says Dr. Traina. “Community was a core value for her, and as someone who values relationships and connections, that really resonates with me,” she adds.

Success, Dr. Traina believes, begins with honest soul-searching. “It requires constant realignment to determine what is most important to you and how you define meaning in your life, so that when you look back you can be proud of the choices you made,” she explains. “That is your north star and it will help you move forward with no regrets towards achieving your goals.”