Some people collect stamps, others vintage memorabilia. Dr Li Jingmei, a scientist at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore, collects mammograms, which she studies to see how breast density predicts cancer risks.
“Usually when a woman goes for an X-ray scan of her breasts for early cancer detection, the mammogram is then discarded but I make full use of these scans to predict breast cancer by looking at proportion of white tissue in the entire breast,” she explains. “You can say that I look at pictures of breasts for a living!”
Dr Li – who received the UNESCO-L’Oreal International For Women In Science Fellowship in 2014 – says the higher the proportion of white tissue, the higher a patient’s risk of contracting breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in Singapore, and the leading cause of cancer deaths among women here. Over the course of a lifetime, 1 in 16 women here will develop breast cancer by age 75.
According to the most recent report from the Singapore Cancer Registry, between 2008 and 2012, deaths from breast cancer made up 17.9 per cent of all female fatalities by cancer.
As such, Dr Li’s work is as important as ever in helping to improve the health of women, a task which the she is more than happy to undertake.
“The thing about breast cancer is that no one wants to talk about it. They feel like being sick is a burden to others,” she says. “I aim to change that by increasing breast cancer awareness.”
Recounting her own harrowing experience, when her mother went for a biopsy for polyps found in her throat, the good doctor is reduced to tears. “I only found out after she was declared healthy. She didn’t want to tell any of us when she went to seek treatment, she went through the whole process alone. Only once she got the all clear, then she told us,” says the 35-year-old.
The daughter of a jewellery manufacturer and a housewife says its difficult to predict your risk of cancer if people in your family aren’t forthcoming about what illnesses they are suffering from.
That’s part of the reason why she’s so driven to improve the lives of young women and women’s health in general.
“If I can just change people’s lives and help them to live better by just a little bit, that’s success to me,” she expresses. “One shouldn’t work just for awards. I’ll be very happy to just get people to start talking about cancer, and to discover better treatments through my work, identify what mutations affect what kind of women, and if they would benefit from specific treatment.”
Words to live by: “Explore all the opportunities afforded to you.”
Next up: “Now my research focuses more on genetics. My work for the next five years is to characterise Singapore breast cancer cases in the population, so I can build prediction models. Patients can then have a better idea of how at risk they are of contracting breast cancer.”
The Great Women Of Our Time 2017 is proudly presented by Lancôme.