Breast cancer is probably one of the scariest health issues women face. I think more of us are now understanding the importance of ultrasounds, mammograms and regular health checks. And, we’re realising that we can’t be complacent just because there’s no family history of it.
But there are also some new stats around the demographics for breast cancer that we need to be aware of. Where it used to be more prominent in women after menopause, the annual National Registry of Disease Office report of 2015 saw that 19% of breast cancers in Singapore were women under 44. This brings up a different set of challenges for healthcare professionals, including looking at the best possible treatment paths that won’t interfere with fertility and raising young children.
Dr Lee Guek Eng is a Medical Oncologist at the Icon Cancer Centre. She specialises in young women cancers because it’s a demographic she relates to. Originally on the path to being a scientist, she switched to medicine to be able to offer a ‘human touch’ and to give comfort to women going through cancer.
Dr Lee feels that patients of this younger age group can often feel a great deal of peer pressure to conform or meet certain societal and economic expectations. They also have concerns about the affect cancer treatment may have on their body and self-image.
“A cancer diagnosis is an emotional time. Young women already have to navigate a multitude of factors from balancing family and work to pressures of image, financial concerns and social commitments. When you add in a cancer diagnosis, it can often become too much for patients. So it’s important to maintain a strong support network and seek counselling options.”
Supporting young patients
The Australian owned Icon Group has six Cancer Centres in Singapore and have now launched a Young Women’s Cancer Program to help address the specific challenges. The aim is to ensure patients are connected with the right support at each step of their journey by recognising the psychosocial, financial and medical considerations of young female cancer patients.
Dr Lee understands that many young women with cancer can feel isolated and lack access to relevant support networks and services. Here, she shares seven points that reflect how she wants to help, and her inspirations for doing so.
#1 “Health professionals need to continue to champion cancer awareness, be at the forefront of cancer research and focus on developing unique models of care to deliver the best possible care to patients and their families for their stage of life.”
#2 “Peer-to-peer support is shown to improve emotional wellbeing. We have a network of young female cancer survivors who connect with newly diagnosed cancer patients to share their stories and advice. Our patients also have access to Icon’s workshops for young women focussing on education and group support.”
#3 “When young women are diagnosed with cancer, they’re often at a vulnerable or changing time in their lives. They can be juggling work and family, all while navigating through other life commitments. Issues like fertility, genetic testing and financial stress are factors during treatment and into survivorship.”
#4 “Younger women are often more susceptible to psychological issues, so we need to be able to support them by connecting them with the right specialists, allied health professionals and support groups.”
#5 “I like to empower my patients to make the best decision with current evidences. A decision that they can live with and not regret after. I see myself as their counsel who is equipped with the knowledge to guide them through this decision-making process, balancing the pros and cons of treatment and also taking their priorities in life into considerations.”
#6 “Most of the time, as women, we may not be very kind to ourselves; we may have high expectations and take on various responsibilities at work, and at home. Upon diagnosis, I think it’s important to let go of all these responsibilities, and truly let yourself rest and recuperate. Be kind to yourselves, delegate jobs and responsibilities. Accept help from others and take it one step at a time.
“One of my favourite quotes is from Japanese author Haruki Murakami: ‘The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. And when there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.’”
#7 “The strength and the grace of how different patients confront their disease is a daily inspiration for the work that I continue to do.”
Helping from the beginning
As an oncologist, Dr Lee wants to ensure women are supported from the testing stage to the start of their diagnosis, and all the way through to treatment and beyond. Having that support from the start can make a huge difference to how you manage the experience, how it influences the rest of your life and how you go on to live a full and better life.
For more information, email Icon Cancer Centre at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 6255 0528.
There are 6 locations in Singapore, all part of Icon Group, Australia’s largest dedicated provider of cancer care.