Cancer warrior – Interview with Dr Ang Peng Tiam
Get to know the man behind Singapore’s first ever oncology department
At a time when becoming a cardiologist was all the rave for aspiring doctors in Singapore, Dr Ang Peng Tiam has decided his calling was to help conquer cancer. And he was right. Decades later, he still finds satisfaction in personally looking after his cancer patients, even leaving a prestigious post at Singapore General Hospital to focus on his private practice.
Dr Ang, Medical Director and Senior Consultant at the Parkway Cancer Centre, studied medicine on the Singapore President’s scholarship and finished with flying colours. He received the Prof Sir Gordon Arthur Ransome gold medal for topping the clinical examinations in 1986. He then pursued his fellowships at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and at the Stanford University Medical Center in California. Upon his return to Singapore 20 years ago, he founded the first ever oncology department in the country, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For Dr Ang, his fight against cancer does not end within the four corners of his clinic. He utilises the power of words and the media to inform people about this deadly disease. He has written a couple of books, such as “Doctor I have cancer. Can you help me?” and contributes regularly to DocTalk in Mind Your Body, a health supplementary of Straits Times. He gives talks and presentation about cancer in various events and health forums. He grabs any chance he gets to empower people about cancer.
Ezyhealth & Beauty is honoured to get a chance to pick on the mind of a true blue cancer warrior.
The road to oncology
Ezyhealth & Beauty: You initially thought of specialising in cardiology, what made you change your mind and pursue oncology instead?
Dr Ang: At that time, all the “bright” doctors in Internal Medicine wanted to specialise in cardiology. Considering myself “amongst the best”, I too wanted to do cardiology. I met with Dr Kwa Soon Bee, then the Director of Medical Services, who encouraged me to consider oncology. He felt that cancer was fast becoming a major problem, and that he needed committed doctors to consider specialising the field and provide leadership in care for cancer patients.
EHB: How was it like founding the first ever oncology department in Singapore 20 years ago? What were the challenges you faced, support you received?
Dr Ang: It was very exciting. Soon after I returned from my oncology fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Stanford University Medical Center, I was tasked to establish the first Department of Medical Oncology, and train medical oncologists to meet the manpower needs to care for cancer patients.
I remember the early days when I was head of department; I had one, then two registrars under my charge. I was given ample resources and funding. The hospital gave me full support in developing the department. Today, there are probably no fewer than a hundred medical oncologists in Singapore.
EHB: After establishing and heading the oncology department of Singapore General Hospital for years, why did you decide to go into private practice?
Dr Ang: I left in 1997 for private practice. Many could not understand why I gave up a promising career in institution. At the age of 36, I was already a senior consultant, head of department, clinical associate professor and a member of the medical board.
In institution, one has to balance clinical care, research, teaching and administration. As I climbed the corporate ladder, I gradually spent more and more time attending meetings and less and less time looking after patients.
After serious reflection, I felt that I enjoyed caring for the patient more than anything else. Furthermore, I was looking for greater personal challenges. Hence, I decided to give myself time to “try out” private practice. If I didn’t like it, I knew that I left behind open doors which I could always go back to. I never looked back after joining Mount Elizabeth Hospital. I started off as a one-man oncology practice. One after another, my colleagues joined me and in 2006, we merged the various clinics to form Parkway Cancer Centre (PCC).
EHB: Of all the things you’ve done in your profession, what do you consider your biggest accomplishment so far?
Dr Ang: It is not for me to say what I have accomplished but for history to decide. What I may consider an achievement today may one day be considered folly.
EHB: The mere mention of the word cancer makes a lot of people shudder, what do you always tell your patients about this dreaded disease?
Dr Ang: Cancer is not a death sentence. There have been many who have contracted the disease and beaten it. As doctors, our responsibility is to keep ourselves updated on the advances in cancer management and to treat each patient with dignity and compassion.
I like to tell stories to my patients; stories of hope to inspire them that they should not be disheartened but instead to battle the illness with courage.
At PCC, we strive to not only attend to the physical needs of cancer patients but also to provide the necessary psychosocial support for our patients. We do this through our CanHope counselors, monthly HealthNews, regular public seminars, medical documentaries on Channel News Asia – “Journey of Hope” and “Edge of Life.”
EHB: Have people’s perceptions toward cancer changed now from when you were starting as an oncologist 20 years ago? How so?
Dr Ang: Of course! One person who has made a significant impact on people’s perception of cancer is our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. When he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, he did not hide the disease but instead came out publicly to talk about it.
He was shown, in the media, bald as he was undergoing chemotherapy. He talked about how he continued to exercise while he was on treatment. He talked about his own mortality. But when he triumphed over his cancer, he brought hope to many others who were battling the disease, or had family members and friends who were with afflicted with cancer.
Many do not see cancer as a death sentence any more but merely one of many illnesses that can be controlled and even beaten.
EHB: Please educate our readers on the cancer situation in Singapore.
Dr Ang: Our most common cancer is colorectal cancer. In my opinion, this is one which no one should even get, let alone die from. I say this because this is a cancer that takes a long time to develop – three to ten years. Colon cancer starts off as benign polyps, and these polyps undergo transformation and turn into cancers.
However, the process of transformation is very long. If we all go for screening colonoscopy once every three years, theoretically, no one should even develop colon cancer. During the procedure, these polyps can easily be snared off, so that they are not given any chance to turn
The Ministry of Health has approved the use of Medisave funds to pay for screening colonoscopy. My sincere hope is for everyone above the age of 50 to go for their scopes regularly. This will help us to nip the problem in the bud before the polyps can develop into colorectal cancer.
EHB: What do you say are the biggest hurdles of patients in battling cancer? What needs to be done to alleviate these hurdles?
Dr Ang: One of the biggest hurdles in battling cancer is the cost of treatment. I have never been an advocate of insurance, but I am now a convert. Cancer treatment is very expensive. Each year, new and better cancer treatments are available. But these new drugs do not come cheap. There is nothing more frustrating for a doctor than to know that there is an effective treatment for the cancer, but cannot offer it simply because it is not within the financial means of the patient.
I sincerely hope that all Singaporeans will sign on to the enhanced medishield plans as this can truly make a difference between life and death.
Keeping a balanced life
EHB: Amidst your busy profession, how do you relax and keep a balanced life?
Dr Ang: I enjoy eating and I enjoy the company of good friends. Every morning, after I finish seeing the inpatients, I sit down with a bunch of buddies to have a drink and share a good yarn. We call ourselves the “car big cannon” club. In Cantonese, it’s which simply means telling a tall tale.
During these sessions, we discuss every topic imaginable – politics, medicine, scandals and what have you. My New Year resolution for 2012 is to try and lose 5kg but so far, I’ve lost only 0.5kg! Seeing how many big dinners I have had since the start of the year, I’m not hopeful that I’ll succeed.
EHB: Any hobbies and other passion you want to share to our readers?
Dr Ang: I’m a rather boring person. Besides my work, there’s nothing that really excites me. I enjoy watching movies in the cinema with my wife. Traveling is fun – be it for holiday or even just for work. I dislike exercise, but I force myself to run on the treadmill and go for walks. I enjoy going out with friends and family to eat and fellowship.
EHB: Is there anything else you want to accomplish in life?
Dr Ang: I want grandchildren…. If possible, lots of them.
“There is nothing more frustrating for a doctor than to know that there is an effective treatment for the cancer, but cannot offer it simply because it is not within the financial means of the patient.”
Dr Ang Peng Tiam, Medical Director and Senior Consultant at the Parkway Cancer Centre
By Maripet L. Poso