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An advocate for cancer patients and migrant workers

Zafirah Banu has an infectious personality. Even through an online zoom call, her intellect, positive nature and passion for serving patients comes through clearly. In her fourth-year as a pharmacist at the National Cancer Centre Singapore’s (NCCS) Specialist Outpatient Clinic Pharmacy, Zafirah sees herself as a bridge between patients and oncologists when it comes to their drug therapy.

"Visiting a hospital can be stressful and I'm aware that as a pharmacist, I’m the last healthcare professional that a patient consults with before they leave NCCS. I want to make their experience the best that it can be,” shared Zafirah.

From student to pharmacist


The National Cancer Centre Singapore’s Specialist Outpatient Clinic Pharmacy team are ever-ready to support patients.

When it came time for university, Zafirah was offered a scholarship to study Pharmacy at the National University of Singapore. She soon realised that her love for chemistry made learning Pharmacy a fascinating endeavour. She enjoyed ploughing through scientific literature to better understand how different drugs could help patients.

When she graduated and it was time to start work, Zafirah chose NCCS, because she felt it would challenge her. Patients with cancer often need multiple types of medication for treatment and it's the role of pharmacists to help them understand and manage their medication regimes.

At the NCCS Specialist Outpatient Clinic Pharmacy, Zafirah’s day-to-day responsibilities include reviewing a patient’s prescription to verify and manage safety and efficacy. She also goes through patients' medication history and laboratory results and checks that the prescribed chemotherapy can be safely administered alongside any other medications they may be taking for chronic conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes. Zafirah contacts the prescribing doctor, as needed, to recommend adjustments to the medication order. She also dispenses supportive medication to help patients manage the side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea.

Part of Zafirah's work is applying for exemptions for drugs and treatments not registered for use in Singapore by the Health Sciences Authority. Patients sometimes have conditions that may be treated effectively by a drug that may not yet be available in Singapore. In that case, their oncologist may enlist the pharmacy team’s help to apply for an exemption so that the drugs can be used for the identified patient.

"Recently, we had a patient with basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. The oncologist found a medication approved overseas that could target a mutation in the patient’s body and prevent the tumour from growing and make it smaller,” shared Zafirah. “We were thankful to be able to get approval for the drug from the Health Sciences Authority and bring in the drug. The drug helped to effectively shrink the tumour and six months later it was surgically removed.”

Caring for all

Access to medication and healthcare for everyone in society is something that Zafirah is very passionate about.

Zafirah’s boss, Associate Professor Lita Chew, the Head of NCCS Pharmacy, said, “Zafirah is always cheerful and has an infectious laugh, but she’s serious about advocating for patients to ensure that access to medication is accessible and affordable.”

In her personal time, Zafirah advocates for migrant workers in Singapore. Pre-pandemic she volunteered at the clinic run by the non-profit organization HealthServe, that provides medical care and support services for migrant workers.

“When I first started volunteering in the migrant clinic, I was very apprehensive as I wasn’t sure how I would meet their needs,” shared Zafirah.

As it turns out, Zafirah's skills came in useful at HealthServe. She dispensed medicine, took blood pressure, monitored glucose and was in charge of triaging the migrant workers when they first came into the clinic. The experience completely changed her perspective about her capabilities and taught her to relate to each migrant worker as an individual. It also made her more passionate about advocating for underserved patients.

When COVID-19 hit Singapore, Zafirah was one of the first to volunteer at the Foreign Worker Dormitories. She served at the dorms for three to four months, rotating between different dorms three to four times a week.

"The experience was life-changing," said Zafirah. “All of us on the healthcare team -  doctors, pharmacists, nurses and allied health professionals had the same mission, which was to do all we could to help. We became a very cohesive unit and it was an enriching experience.”

Her time at HealthServe enabled her to better understand what the migrant workers were going through.

“They are individuals with different backgrounds living together and separated from their families. The isolation they felt during the early days of the pandemic caused quite a lot of psychological issues which would manifest as physical symptoms like gastric reflux. It was clear that they needed mental health support, so we tried our best to support them," said Zafirah.

Moving forward


National Cancer Centre Singapore pharmacist Zafirah and her husband celebrated their wedding in late 2021.

When asked about what's next in her career and volunteering, Zafirah shared, " I know that I want to keep moving forward with my aim to keep healthcare affordable through different initiatives and projects.”

Following this interview, Zafirah was married in August 2021, with close friends and family in attendance. As she adjusts to her new roles and responsibilities as a married woman, she wants to continue to advocate for her patients and the migrant workers she serves.