Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the National Cancer Centre Singapore Charity Dinner on 22 October 2023.
Mr Cheng Wai Keung, Chairman, SingHealth
Prof William Hwang, CEO, National Cancer Centre Singapore
Madam Ho Geok Choo, Chairperson of the NCCS Cancer Fund and Research Fund
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good evening. I’m happy to join you for the National Cancer Centre Singapore’s (NCCS) Charity Dinner after a break of five years.
We are here to celebrate and appreciate our many donors, whose generosity have enabled the good work that NCCS has been doing all these years, and will continue to support NCCS in caring for patients even better.
We are also here tonight to celebrate and appreciate our many healthcare professionals, from doctors to therapists to nurses, who have provided such professional care and made a difference to both the patients and families.
It underscores the importance of a strong partnership with the community to tackle the leading cause of death in Singapore today. So let me join Prof Hwang tonight to thank everyone for your generosity, service and dedication. Now that NCCS is in a new expanded facility, with key partners like Advanced Cell Therapy and Research Institute, Singapore (ACTRIS) and National Cancer Society co-located in the NCCS building, we can do more. So, let us all give our support to Prof Hwang and his team, deepen this spirit of collaboration, to make even greater progress.
Cancer is a disease with growing impact. It affects one in four people in Singapore, with close to 16,000 cases diagnosed annually – or about 44 new cases every day.
All of us would know of a family member, friend or loved one who is afflicted by the disease.
Cancer affects the young and the old. However, like many other diseases, age is a key risk factor. Nearly 40% of those diagnosed with cancer here are aged 70 years and above.
So as Singapore’s population rapidly ages, the incidence of cancer, and thus the need for cancer care, is expected to grow in tandem.
The good news is that cancer is no longer the death sentence that it used to be.
With earlier detection and better treatments, the overall outlook for cancer patients has improved over the years.
Survivorship rates have grown from 19.5% in the 1970s, to nearly 60% today.
This is a positive trend.
That said, survivorship also brings its unique set of challenges.
For example, the physical, emotional and financial toll of cancer on survivors and their families can be significant.
Many of them had to stop working to undergo treatment, or to care for a loved one undergoing treatment.
Many survivors also have to deal with life-long medical and psychological issues arising from their cancer diagnosis.
For example, a recent NUS study found that young cancer survivors were at higher risk of developing depression, anxiety and other mental health illnesses.
Cancer care has therefore grown more multi-faceted. It is not just about treatments, but also the post-treatment support and care.
Given these trends, how can Singapore prepare and ensure that we provide effective care to cancer patients and their families in the coming years?
Let me share three prongs:
i. First – individuals can do their part to reduce cancer risk and ensure early detection.
ii. Second – our institutions must continue to invest in research, to be at the forefront of fighting cancer.
iii. Third – the community can play an important role in supporting those affected by cancer.
Prevention and early detection
First – prevention and early detection. We have all heard the saying, ‘Prevention is better than cure’. But knowing is the first step – what matters most is acting.
Prevention and early detection are key for all diseases, but especially so for cancer. Cancer prognosis is better when detected in the earlier stage, because treatment is more straightforward and less aggressive.
The Singapore Cancer Registry has an important chart on the website, showing the survival rates from 1 to 5 years after diagnosis. The earlier cancer is detected and treated, the better the survival rate.
As such, our national cancer screening strategy recommends screenings for colorectal, cervical and breast cancers, which are the most common cancers in Singapore.
Under Healthier SG, which was launched a few months ago, screenings for these top three cancers will be fully subsidised for eligible citizens.
But screening alone does not prevent ill-health; it is our daily habits that make a difference.
Again, all of us will be familiar with the advice that our healthcare practitioners give – exercise regularly, follow a good diet, don’t smoke, don’t consume excessive alcohol.
These are simple suggestions, yet sometimes also the hardest to sustain!
This is why under Healthier SG, we are encouraging residents to take ownership of your health by developing a personalised health plan with a trusted, regular care provider. This way, you can receive guidance and support in taking actionable steps towards your health goals.
So, let me take this opportunity to urge all Singaporeans to enrol when you receive your SMS, and get your friends and family to do the same! At the community level, our grassroots leaders are working with MOH to organise sign-ups.
Invest in Care and Research
I have touched on the importance of prevention, early detection and fostering stronger personal ownership. My second point is that it is important for us to invest in improving the treatment and care of cancer.
We have made good progress over the years, with NCCS spearheading many important initiatives.
With its new building officially opened in May this year, NCCS offers holistic and integrated care, with clinical services, research, education and supportive care, now all housed under one roof.
We have doubled outpatient cancer services and increased chemotherapy treatment capacity by 70%.
There are age- and needs- specific cancer care, such as programmes for Geriatric Oncology, Adolescents & Young Adult Oncology, and Young Women with Breast Cancer.
NCCS support groups led by medical social workers also enable patients and their caregivers to get practical information and support.
The Singapore Cancer Society, an important community partner, is co-located at the NCCS Building, making care more accessible and convenient for patients.
At the clinical level, the range of cancer treatments has also grown.
NCCS offers innovative treatments which have been proven to be safe and beneficial, such as cell therapy and immunotherapy.
The Goh Cheng Liang Proton Therapy Centre within NCCS offers cancer patients the option of treatment with Proton Beam Therapy, an advanced form of radiation treatment that may help patients with certain types of cancer.
Cancer research is entering an innovative and promising phase.
mRNA technology and genomic sequencing, powered by AI, are helping us understand and therefore tackle diseases like cancer at a deeper and more precise level.
We are embarking on initiatives like the National Precision Medicine programme, to sequence the genome of 100,000 Singaporeans.
As a leading cancer centre in Southeast Asia, NCCS’ research expertise in Asian cancers has been recognised in many awards, including the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award.
NCCS is also a leader in clinical trials for new cancer therapeutics. It has collaborated with other hospitals and partners in Singapore, including the NUS Cancer Science Institute which I visited recently, to deepen and share expertise.
I am happy to note that NCCS clinicians and scientists have made substantial contributions in the research realm.
For example, NCCS, was part of a multi-institutional collaboration in Singapore to develop the first made-in-Singapore antibody-drug conjugate called EBC-129, which can selectively target cancer cells in solid tumours, while sparing normal cells.
EBC-129 was cleared by the US FDA for first-in-human studies earlier this year, and clinical trials are underway, to determine its safety and tolerability in cancer patients.
NCCS is also conducting research into cancer vaccines, a new and promising approach to cancer therapy.
A recent phase 1 clinical trial led by NCCS and the Translational Immunology Institute has shown promising results for patients with advanced cancers of the breast, lung, and ovaries.
This team is now working towards testing the vaccine in a larger patient population.
Another novel discovery by a team from NCCS, SGH and the Genome Institute of Singapore was that cancer cells can switch states between being more aggressive or less aggressive.
This could help in treating triple-negative breast cancer, which is an aggressive subtype with limited treatment options and poor prognosis today.
A three-year clinical trial that applies this discovery is now ongoing, to see whether tumours could be primed to become less aggressive so that patients could respond better to chemotherapy.
These are just a few examples of NCCS’ research efforts that have the potential to transform cancer care and improve patient outcomes.
This brings me to my final point. Even as we go upstream to lower the incidence of cancer and improve research for the treatment of cancer, we must care well for those who are living with cancer today.
A cancer patient’s journey – from diagnosis, to treatment and survivorship – is a daunting one.
I am glad that there are many community initiatives to support cancer patients – the Singapore Cancer Society which I mentioned earlier, was formed in 1964.
NCCS itself provides not just excellent clinical care, but also psycho-social care to patients.
Much of this is enabled by the NCCS Cancer Fund. From providing financial assistance to needy patients to funding support programmes, the NCCS Cancer Fund tangibly helps to alleviate the burden of cancer for patients and their families.
Mdm Ting is one such beneficiary. A breast cancer patient who lives alone in a rental flat, Mdm Ting has other ailments like diabetes, and was at risk of falls and social isolation.
Mdm Ting’s medical social worker in NCCS helped her apply for financial assistance, while her doctor referred her to the Temasek Foundation ACCESS (Accessible Cancer Care to Enable Support for Survivors) programme.
Under this programme, a community nurse helps Mdm Ting manage her diabetes. She also receives regular rehabilitation sessions to improve her mobility and meet other seniors.
Thanks to this holistic support, Mdm Ting is now doing well and enjoys an improved quality of life.
Such heartwarming tales are made possible by the support of donors to the NCCS Cancer Fund.
While the government provides broad-based subsidies and financial assistance, community support such as the NCCS Cancer Fund play a crucial complementary role in enhancing the last mile care, which makes a tangible difference to patients and their families.
I would like to commend and thank the many donors here today for your generosity and steadfast support.
Let me mention some of the transformative gifts that were made to the NCCS Cancer Fund:
Mrs Margaret Lien has pledged $20 million to establish the Lien Ying Chow Endowment Fund, which will enable NCCS to provide patients with holistic psycho-social cancer care and improve support for patients during their treatment journey.
The Goh Foundation has pledged $6.35 million to establish the INSPIRE (INnovation in Supportive and Palliative CaRE) Programme, which provides needs-based health coaching as well as grief and bereavement support.
The New Century Foundation’s $1 million gift will enable clinicians and scientists to harness technology such as AI, to introduce innovations in cancer research and care, to improve health outcomes.
These will go a long way in supporting today and future NCCS patients, as well as their families.
In closing, let me again thank everyone here tonight for your contributions towards NCCS’ mission of advancing cancer care in Singapore now and into the future.
Your generous support benefits patients and caregivers and give them hope of a better tomorrow.
Together with continued investments in cancer research, and our push for better preventive health, we can confront cancer bravely and work towards a Healthier Singapore together.
Thank you and have a wonderful evening ahead.
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