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What I learned from my patients

For the last 25 years, the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) has treated the majority of cancer patients in Singapore’s public healthcare sector. They have received treatment and support from NCCS’ team of doctors, nurses, medical social workers, pharmacists, radiographers and many more. 

Three pioneer staff who joined NCCS 25 years ago share how they found their calling caring for patients at NCCS, and valuable life lessons they have learned from their patients. 

A master medical social worker who always gives hope

Dr Gilbert Fan has been with NCCS from the beginning. First recruited to set up the medical social work department, Dr Fan thought that his stint at NCCS would not last long.

“I thought I would only stay for two years as counselling cancer patients might be too much for me to handle, but I found that it is actually an incredibly meaningful job,” shared Dr Fan, who during the course of his career at NCCS has been medical social worker, head of the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and is now Master Medical Social Worker involved in teaching social work students at the National University Singapore as an adjunct faculty staff.

NCCS' Master Medical Social Worker Dr Gilbert Fan has learned that every patient needs hope 

One of the interesting things Dr Fan has learned about patients who are diagnosed with cancer is that they have a desire to not only beat cancer but also improve themselves. They make efforts to eat healthily, exercise, get in touch with their emotions and strengthen family ties. Over time, Dr Fan has also seen that patients and their families are now much more open to counselling and sharing their feelings, which helps medical social workers better meet their needs.

One patient was able to teach Dr Fan something that helped him support his patients better. 

Diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced cancer, she was determined to go on every clinical trial she was eligible for. When admitted to hospice, as her condition was no longer responding to treatment, she did not stop asking her doctors whether there was a new trial she could be put on. When Dr Fan gently asked her if she understood that she was not going to get better, she explained that for many years the clinical trials were a source of hope that helped her outlive her initial prognosis.

“It was then that I understood that no matter what, every patient needs hope and that it is our role to give it to them, in whatever form is needed,” said Dr Fan.

A nurse clinician who wants to make a difference

Nurse Clinician Gemma Diente joined NCCS 25 years ago wanting to make a meaningful difference in the lives of cancer patients. In her role she works closely with other team members to support cancer patients and their families during the treatment journey. 

Overseeing the daily operations at the Ambulatory Treatment Unit (ATU), where chemotherapy is administered to patients, her responsibilities include administering chemotherapy and maintaining a safe environment for patients, their caregivers and the care team. As a nurse leader, she is involved in staff deployment, implementation of work processes and upholding compliance to safe practices and service standards. 

Nurse Clinician Gemma Diente is continually inspired by her patients at NCCS
Credit: SingHealth

Over the past 25 years, two things have stood out to Sister Gemma in her care of cancer patients. One is that the hardest thing for patients to cope with is the uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Having strong support networks are crucial to helping them navigate challenges, which can persist even after they have completed cancer treatment. She has also observed that patients show a lot of courage and strength in the face of adversity, despite the emotional and physical toll their disease can take.  

“I am continually inspired by my patients. They remind me that the human spirit is resilient and that reinforces my commitment to providing compassionate care and support to both patients and their caregivers,” said Sister Gemma.

An oncologist whose research focuses on patients’ needs

Clinician-leader Prof Toh Han Chong, who is NCCS Deputy CEO of Strategic Partnerships and Senior Consultant in the Division of Medical Oncology, joined the centre before it had its own building in 1999! 

During his career, he has served in leadership positions, and seen the Division of Medical Oncology grow from a department to become one of the largest medical oncology divisions in the world. He finds fulfillment in being able to treat patients as a medical oncologist and do high-impact translational research as a clinician-scientist.

Prof Toh Han Chong, Deputy CEO of Strategic Partnerships and Senior Consultant at NCCS, is inspired his patients’ resilience, courage, strength and hope

“The environment, culture and system at NCCS allows us to see patients and do research which is critical to better cancer outcomes. Clinician-scientists here have a frontline perspective of what our patients go through during their cancer journey and treatment. This enables us to focus the research we do to answer important clinical questions that are relevant and potentially improve care and patient lives,” said Prof Toh.

Since the 1990s, Prof Toh has witnessed the astonishing growth and acceleration of new cancer treatments that give patients much greater chance of survival. From his long career caring for patients, he is able to recount numerous stories of patients who have made remarkable recoveries despite a dismal prognosis, and those who have inspired him with their resilience, courage, strength and hope.  

Serving patients at the heart of NCCS

Even as NCCS has grown, and things have changed, with the centre moving from the old building to new, more advanced treatment and technology and patients’ attitudes shifting with time, what has remained unchanged is NCCS care teams’ calling to serve, support and uplift the lives of their patients.