Meet Cancer Research Malaysia’s employee 001. Yoon Sook Yee first heard of a cancer research set-up in Malaysia back in 2000 and was immediately drawn to a wonderful opportunity. She decided to pursue the opportunity and after 20 years of hard work, she is now one of two credentialed genetic counsellors in the country!
In this interview, Sook-Yee shares her journey of hard work and perseverance as well as her belief that Malaysians have what it takes to pursue genetic counselling.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
The early years of my education began in Assunta Secondary School in Petaling Jaya. It was run by Sister Enda, an Irish nun, who taught us values, not just academic values but life values which I hold dear and abide to till this day. I had my first opportunity to travel abroad to our neighbouring country, Singapore on an ASEAN Scholarship to complete my A-Levels and subsequently, obtained the Sime Darby Cambridge Scholarship to further my studies in Natural Sciences (Chemistry) at the University of Cambridge. Those were my formative years and I learnt by leaps and bounds with the exposure from the experiences in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK.
2. What drove you to Cancer Research Malaysia (CRMY) and how did you become the first staff?
As a Sime Darby Scholar, I returned to Malaysia to serve my scholarship bond with the conglomerate and was working in various capacities under Sime Darby. It was then that I received word that there would be a new set up for cancer research and was asked if I would like to be part of it. The lab would be led by Dr Teo Soo Hwang, my fellow Sime Darby Scholar, who had completed her PhD in Cambridge whilst I was an undergraduate. I jumped at this rare and interesting prospect and started work in a room with a desk and a chair in Subang Jaya Medical Centre in 2000!
Reflecting on my role in CRMY for the past 2 decades, it has been a journey of both professional and personal growth. I started as the Projects Manager, working closely with Prof Teo to manage all aspects of setting up the laboratory and the administration. So, it was really starting from scratch, working closely together with YM Tunku Ahmad and Prof Teo to set up statutory registrations, accounts and HR roll out plans. Hence, I was employee 001!
3. Why did you choose genetic counselling or venture into genetics?
My role in CRMY or CARIF as it was known then, subsequently expanded to include managing patients in the breast cancer genetics study. I realised then that we did not have the appropriate skills in the organisation to adequately support the patients enrolled in the genetics study. The experience in the study led me to pursue further training as a Genetic Counsellor in 2004 via a part-time part-residential Post-Graduate Diploma in Genetic Counselling from Australia so that we will have an in-house genetic counsellor.
Since then, I continued to provide genetic counselling in the breast and ovarian cancer programme with a focus on high risk individuals, a niche service which we are proud to have built up in CRMY. Genetic counselling and testing is crucial in the identification of individuals who have been predisposed to cancer and more recently the genetic profiles may change the course of treatment for patients. This is an area that I am especially interested in and it is exciting times now in the evolving field of genetic counselling.
4. What are your challenges as a genetic counsellor?
As genetic counsellors, our main role is to help individuals understand genetic information so that they can make informed choices about their health and we support the needs of the individuals including psychosocial needs. As there are very few genetic counsellors in the country, we have to rely on each other for peer support and we also work very closely with the clinical geneticists (the medical doctors specialising in treating genetic cases).
“Hence, in order to create a more conducive and supportive environment, we decided to set up the Genetic Counselling Society Malaysia (GCSM) to further the profession” – Sook Yee.
5. What are your proudest moments in your career?
There are 2 moments I am most proud of. The first is obtaining the credential as a Fellow of the Human Genetics Society Australasia. As there was no infrastructure to train in Malaysia and I had to set up a pathway that had supervision from Malaysia and Australia, it took me 8 years to obtain the fellowship, and I am happy to say that I am currently one of the two credentialed Genetic Counsellors in Malaysia.
The second moment was when we set up a study aimed at providing access to genetic counselling for patients from all corners of the country. Cancer is still a taboo subject in Malaysia and there is a fatalistic attitude to hereditary conditions. Hence, I am excited that after many years of developing genetic counselling in the country through this study, we are finally reaching out to all those who are in need of genetic information and hopefully with this milestone, we will be able to address this challenge.
6. Do you think Malaysians have what it takes to pursue genetic counselling? What would your advice be to aspiring genetic counsellors?
We need to build up our own local genetic counsellors as Malaysians, as no one understands the needs of our own population but us. We know and respect the sensitivities of our own cultures in our diverse population. Hence, in Malaysia, we have built a ‘muhibah’ genetic counselling team who are able to speak the languages of Malaysians.
The experience of being a genetic counsellor has been rewarding as we work towards better interventions that help improve outcome for those suffering with cancer. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet and counsel many patients and this experience has enabled me to relate better with the many challenges that patients face in managing the disease. To be able to help overcome those challenges and be part of a collective effort to increase survival is truly fulfilling.
I hope that more individuals will plunge into the field, now that we have started our own MSc in Genetic Counselling programme at Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. With GCSM to further the profession within the Allied Health Professions in Malaysia, there are many opportunities to develop and grow as a genetic counsellor in the country.
7. Is there anyone in particular that has played an important role in your amazing journey towards being a genetic counsellor?
There are many who have played important roles throughout this experience. I am really grateful for the scholarship from Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) to pursue my undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge as it was a great learning and inspiring experience. The team from YSD has always be extremely supportive to scholars and their guidance have been immeasurable.
I am also grateful for my family who has been an amazing support system and my source of encouragement in facing the many challenges and obstacles that comes with the job.
And of course, the commitment and dedication shown by my first colleagues, Prof Teo and Prof Cheong, who have been there from the beginning, my genetics supervisor, Professor Dr Thong Meow Keong from Universiti Malaya Medical Centre who has guided my training as a genetic counsellor as well as my wonderful genetic counselling team. These are capable young Malaysians providing a service that is essential in ensuring that we can improve cancer survival in the country, and I’m optimistic that many more from the younger generation will be inspired to take genetic counselling as a career choice in the future.
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