Prof Dr Woo Yin Ling is determined to reduce, if not eradicate, incidences of cervical cancer among Malaysian women.
The Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) gynaecological oncologist has made it her mission to combat the disease which is currently the third most common cancer and the third leading cause of death among women in Malaysia.
“That is the prime of their lives. Malaysia has one of the best Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination programmes in the region, which we implemented back in 2010. But while we have started to get rid of the infection and disease, we also need to have a more sensitive method of detection.
“The reason why cervical cancer is so prevalent is because women don’t screen. And women don’t screen because the pap smear – the traditional screening method practiced here – is intrusive, uncomfortable and embarrassing. Even for me, going for a pap smear is unpleasant. I put it off because … well, it is embarrassing.
“But we are on the brink of introducing a new screening process where women can do the test themselves in the privacy of their homes. This will change things … we will see a shift in the numbers,” says Dr Woo, 45.
With a self-testing kit, she asserts, screening will be as easy as taking a swab on our own and sending it to the lab for testing. The kits come with instructions which are easy to follow.
“It is smaller than a tampon and it is certainly less invasive,” she says.
She adds that results from HPV DNA testing – the recommended method of testing by the World Health Organisation – are more accurate than pap smears.
Dr Woo deals with female cancers. She’s a clinician as well as a researcher which means that she tends to patients in advanced stages of cancer as well as conducts research that can potentially advance cancer treatments and slow the onset of the disease.
Dr Woo, however, is most passionate about interacting and consulting with patients.
“If you asked me to give up one, I’d give up research. I went into medicine because I like the clinical aspects of my job. Even my research at this point is all patient-centered.
“As a student, I had a supervisor who was very good at what she did but also very compassionate. That was when I first saw how doctors can touch lives. She looked at the human first and then the disease and that inspired me. I realised then that’s what I wanted to do.
“I feel it is a privilege to be able to help women who are dealing with cancer. There is nothing more real than dealing with the pain of life and death, and I value the responsibility of helping my patients go through it. They are mothers, sisters, daughters … people who are very important in our lives,” she shares.
Dr Woo did her medical degree at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and her post graduate research and training in Britain. She returned to Malaysian in 2010 after spending 20 years studying overseas. Working closely with the Health Ministry, Dr Woo is bent on making a positive difference in cancer treatment and prevention for Malaysian women.
“The ministry is very proactive and though there are constraints, it is about working within the constraints to move forward.
For cervical cancer screening, for example, they do realise that HPV DNA screening is the way forward. Together, we are also looking at how we can use technology to enable us to access our results via our mobile phone.
“But change can’t happen overnight. We need to know how we can adapt these new methods to the Malaysian setting. We need to know the concerns of Malaysian women and educate and empower them first.
“We must create awareness about the disease and the need for screening. We also have to change the mindset that the traditional pap smear is the only and most effective method of screening,” she says.
Apart from her work on cervical cancer, Dr Woo is also elbow deep in research on ovarian cancer.
“My work has been rewardingly challenging. Every day is different but my clinical work is especially very meaningful and rewarding. You can really build a relationship with most patients and that is rewarding. Sometimes we can only spend a few minutes with each patient but even so, they are appreciative of those few minutes, which makes it my responsibility to give them my best,” she says.