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Mother of 4 juggles family commitments and demanding job as radiation therapist

If you have ever spent time in the National Cancer Centre Singapore's (NCCS) radiotherapy department you may have encountered Hester Lee, Manager in the Division of Radiation Oncology. 

Hester is a highly-trained radiation therapist who many patients have observed is professional, clear in communication and very thorough. What few would know is that Hester juggles the demands of the job with a busy home life as a mum of four!

Hester Lee (third from left) and her colleagues from the National Cancer Centre Singapore's Division of Radiation Oncology.

Busy working mum

On a typical day, Hester Lee, wakes up at 5:00am, gets her school-going kids up at 5:45am, sends them off to school by 6:30am, and sends the younger two kids to day-care by 7:30am. She starts her work day at 8:00 am and, on days she is on the early shift, ends her busy work day at 5:00pm.

With four children aged from 15 months old to 11 years old, Hester has little free time! She and her husband are hands-on parents who make sure to coordinate their schedules so that their children's drop-off to day-care, school and activities are always taken care of. On days when Hester works the late shift, she gets home around 9:00pm just in time to tuck her kids into bed.

"Seeing my kids at bedtime is precious, they love to cuddle up and spend time talking until they fall asleep," shared Hester.

At work, Hester mainly treats patients using the linear accelerator, a specialised piece of equipment, that performs targeted radiosurgery and radiotherapy using photon beams on patients with different types of cancer. While most of Hester's patients have brain cancer, she also treats patients with prostate cancers.

Hester briefs new patients on the treatment process, how to manage potential side effects and what to expect during their visit to NCCS. If needed, she also arranges their subsequent appointments. Depending on their course of treatment, Hester sometimes sees patients multiple times, allowing her to build a rapport which puts them at ease during their visits. In addition to delivering treatment, Hester communicates with other members of the patient's care team including the oncologists and nurses, about the patient's treatment.

Behind the scenes, Hester works with her team to improve service delivery. For example, refining the pre-treatment protocol for prostate cancer patients. She and her colleagues give patients dietary advice and tips on how to stay hydrated while they undergo treatment.  As many patients experience fatigue, lethargy and various other side effects after treatment, they also share advice on how to manage these symptoms.

Choosing radiation therapy

Growing up, Hester's mum tried to influence her to be nurse or a teacher as these were regarded as stable professions. When Hester heard a radiation therapist give a talk at her secondary school, it was a lightbulb moment that influenced her career choice.

"The idea of being a radiation therapist stuck with me throughout junior college because I felt it would be a meaningful career where I could help people," said Hester. "Before that I didn't even know what an allied health professional was!"

At the end of junior college, Hester pursued a diploma in Radiation Therapy at Nanyang Polytechnic, followed by a degree in Radiation Therapy at the University of Sydney. She joined NCCS in 2003 as a radiation therapist.

Tough times during the Pandemic

Juniors in the National Cancer Centre Singapore's Division of Radiation Oncology made encouragement badges to lift team spirit.

During the pandemic, Hester and her team put in extra hours to treat patients. To enable safe distancing measures, more time was needed between each patient's appointment. The team came in before 6:45am so that patients could be seen by 7:30am and the last patient of the day was scheduled at 7:30pm, but the team often stayed on to treat remaining patients.

Now that safe distancing measures have eased and the number of patients seeking treatment has increased, the team's workload continues to be heavy.

"We understand the reasons for the long hours but it is challenging," expressed Hester. "A group of junior staff came up with badges to encourage each other, boost morale and remind us that we do it all for our patients!" 

Training for the future


National Cancer Centre Singapore's Division of Radiation Oncology team taking a break during specialised training in the United States.

Hester and the radiation therapists at NCCS are now getting ready for the new NCCS building opening later this year. She was one of the few in the team sent to the United States to be trained to use a new linear accelerator for the new building. The machine is able to deliver a highly targeted form of radiation and has several modes of imaging and surface monitoring.

During her training, at a radiosurgery specialist centre in the United States, Hester learned how to deliver short, fractionated high doses of photon beams using the linear accelerator. Once she got back to Singapore, she taught her colleagues what she learned. Trainers from the partner centres were also seconded to NCCS to train the rest of the team.

"We are looking forward to bringing this machine to our patients especially because it is well tolerated, reduces side effects and improves treatment outcomes," said Hester.