Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women Of Our Time awards. Meet 2020’s Science & Technology Nominee, Dr Felicia Tan, breast surgeon and the Director and Chief Surgeon of FeM Surgery – one of the leading surgical group practices in Singapore.
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Meet Dr Felicia Tan – Great Women Of Our Time 2020 Science & Technology Nominee
Change is the only constant, and this is one of the few things that Dr Felicia Tan lives by. Her entire life has been centred around change and she’s since learned to embrace the unexpected.
At the age of 12, Felicia lost her mum to an accident and it was this impetus that led her to her path to medicine. “Instead of treating animals, like I had always wanted to do, I decided I wanted to focus on treating humans.” But even then, her journey to becoming a breast surgeon wasn’t as straightforward. After her medical training, she switched to adult surgery with a focus on liver transplant and liver surgery. “But again, another life event happened. My daughter was born with congenital myopia and she needed therapy and a lot of attention. My husband and I were in the field of liver surgery and that’s when we decided that someone needs to do a surgery that is less demanding. I decided that since I’m younger and I’ve spent a lot less time training, I would go down the path of choosing another specialty that had less emergency work and I could have a bit more lifestyle choices as well.”
Even though the decision to switch to breast surgery came naturally, the transition to go from liver surgery to breast surgery was not an easy one. “As surgeons, we like to be in the operating theatre, and going into breast surgery requires a mindset shift. I had to tell myself that this was a whole new different field. Yes, the surgery is less demanding, there’s less emergency work but I also wanted to find niches within the specialty to explore and improve on.”
This invested passion led Dr Tan to spend her time with breast cancer survivors and build breast cancer survival programmes around the world. Aside from the surgical aspects of her work, she also followed her curiosity in the research of breast cancer. Questions like why do young women get breast cancer, and why do breast cancer in pregnant women differ from breast cancer from other women were the start to a Pandora’s box of many more. In fact, she was awarded Prestige Singapore’s Top 40 under 40 achievers in 2015 for her contribution to the field of medicine and breast cancer.
In hindsight, Dr Tan shares that changing her focus to breast surgery gave her more time with her kids, she can watch them grow up, and help her daughter transition through therapy and get better. “Looking back, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Now that I’m in the field and I’ve made a name for myself in the field of breast surgery, I don’t regret this decision at all. It all connected in the end. I think I would have regretted being a liver surgeon!”
Alongside surgery, Dr Tan also focuses on delving into research on young breast cancer patients and conducting medical missions that provide needy communities with healthcare. “A large part of my practice is that we do a lot of mission work. Every two months we’re off to somewhere, some remote country and village, providing healthcare to people who need it most.”
It is her way of acknowledging that life is not equal all the time, and not everyone is given the same opportunities or resources. In Singapore, it can take just 15 minutes (or less) for someone to walk to the nearest doctor or centre to get their breast scanned. But in many countries, it is almost impossible. It could be a two-day journey just to get to the nearest doctor, or it could cost them their entire savings or more.
Dr Tan’s mission work brings medical care to the people who need it most. “We bring out our high-end machines, our portable ultrasounds, and all our gadgets so that we’re fully equipped to screen and diagnose a problem for them. And we don’t just leave them at that, we go on to make sure that whatever care they need is subsequently provided, by working with organisations and local governments. To make sure that whatever we take up during these camps – the care is also provided so that this person gets well.
They’ve been to India, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bali, Maldives, Cambodia, and when it comes to medical camps they prioritise going back to the same community to build lasting relationships. “It is a lot more meaningful. After a while, the people there know us and they also feel more comfortable coming back for regular screenings. This has been an extremely meaningful part of my job as we go back to the same community and build a relationship with them.”
The Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.