From aspiring obstetrician to medical oncologist, Dr Toh Han Chong reminisces about life as a medical student in England, including asking a girl out and getting rejected, listening to Pet Shop Boys and rowing on the River Thames.

Associate Professor Toh Han Chong is Deputy Director of the National Cancer Centre Singapore, and also a Senior Consultant at its division of Medical Oncology.
He works actively in the field of cancer immunotherapy, immunology and inflammation.

Where did you study?
I did my preclinical years in the University of London, in the UK. I then finished my clinical years and graduated as a doctor from the University of Cambridge.

What were the most memorable moments you experienced during that time in England?
Wow, there’s a lot.... even including asking a girl out on a date and getting rejected! But I would say it was very memorable being in my 20s in a new city, a new country, discovering new experiences and encountering new people and a new culture in a country so rich in history and yet, edgy too.

I may be revealing my age here, but it was the golden era of Britpop. Artistes like the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, David Bowie, New Order, Madness and U2 were in their prime. The music scene, culture, trends, attitude and mindset of the society at that time were very exciting for me and lots of fun.

I felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to study there. In many ways the memories were very deeply entrenched. I guess it goes without saying for all 20 year olds at that period of their lives and education. Till now, I still have nostalgic and sentimental feelings towards England.

Another important part of university life were the deep friendships I made.

Are you still in touch with anyone from outside Singapore from those medical school days?
Oh definitely! For example, I remain very close friends with [Professor] Anthony Chan, [Director of the Sir YK Pao Cancer Centre at Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong]. We first became friends because we stayed in the same hostel in London.

Our relationship is also a professional one. We regularly meet for work and at conferences. Anthony wanted to be a surgeon and I wanted to be an obstetrician. Amazing that both of us are now medical oncologists. Life is really full of surprises.

Another close friend of mine is anaesthetist [Associate Professor] Eugene Liu Hern Choon [current CEO of the National University Health System]. We were both in England at the same time but he went to a different medical school. I’ve known him since we were seven years old and we have remained firm friends since. We once went tobogganing during winter on Hampstead Heath sitting on a frying pan…..*facepalm*

What hobbies did you pick up in medical school?
I took up rowing in university and I fell in love with it. I love being on the water, and rowing with the sun only just rising and the mist rolling over the water was magical. In London, we rowed mainly in the afternoons after classes on the Thames.

We had to be ready before 6 in the morning for rowing training, so it meant I couldn’t keep late nights and had to be very disciplined with time. It also taught me teamwork, discipline and stamina from a young age. All those hours of rowing practice helped me in my medical career, especially the grit, pain and endurance (laughs).

I still row now in Singapore as a sport. I am in the same rowing club (EASTER Rowing Club) as my professional collaborator, Prof Salvatore Albani [Director of the SingHealth Translational Immunology and Inflammation Centre], who used to row competitively in Italy as a young man. It’s such a fun coincidence. We both love immunology and we both love rowing.

You said that you wanted to be an obstetrician. How did you end up being an oncologist – and a pretty successful one at that?
I was interested in obstetrics because I felt that I enjoyed the technical aspects of surgery and I loved the happy moments in labour ward – the birth of a healthy baby is always such a joyful moment for the mother, father and family members.

When I was a medical student doing obstetrics and gynaecology at the Rosie Maternity Hospital, the obstetricians there were very academic, and I was fascinated by the immunology of pregnancy.

But I didn’t do obstetrics in the end: When I came back to Singapore, there were no house jobs available in obstetrics. I guess I was destined to go into medical oncology!


A longer version of this article was published in Joy At Work on 20 January 2018.