The human plumber

Dr Ng Chin

AGE: 46

OCCUPATION: Specialist in general surgery and consultant at the Raffles Surgery Centre at Raffles Hospital

Dr Ng has the people around him to thank for putting him on his career path.

When he was in primary school, he was filled with regret after an elderly neighbour fell from a tree while trying to pick mangoes for him and his younger sister.

That accident made him resolve to be a doctor.

One year after he made the cut to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland at the age of 21, he experienced first-hand the devastation of a cancer diagnosis.

His father, then 50, was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer, which affected Dr Ng's family "quite badly", he said.

The former businessman, who was the family's sole breadwinner, had to stop work for nearly a year to undergo surgery and chemotherapy.

The elder Mr Ng, now a 75-year-old retiree, went for a colonoscopy only after spotting blood in his stools - a symptom of colorectal cancer.

Dr Ng was inspired by his father's surgeon to pursue colorectal surgery.

So he went to the Royal Brisbane Hospital in Australia to train for a year.

Today, Dr Ng sits on the committee of the Society of Colorectal Surgeons Singapore and treats patients who often remind him of his father's case.

He worked in public hospitals - namely, Singapore General Hospital and Changi General Hospital - from 1992 to 2006, before joining his psychiatrist wife, Dr Clarice Hong, at Raffles Hospital in 2007.

They have three daughters aged between 14 and 17.

March is colorectal cancer awareness month.

Raffles Medical Group is giving faecal occult blood test (FOBT) kits to people aged 50 years and over and those who have had a change in bowel habits or have a family history of colorectal cancer.

The kits are a screening test for colorectal cancer.

You can collect the free FOBT kits at Raffles Hospital or at any of the 45 Raffles Medical clinics.

Q: I specialise in colorectal surgery because...

A: Colorectal cancer - which affects the large intestine and the rectum - is the most common cancer in Singapore.

The latest data from the Singapore Cancer Registry shows that the age-standardised incidence rates for colorectal cancer in both men and women have climbed consistently since 1973, with a total of 8,733 new cases from 2008 to 2012.

On a personal note, my father had colorectal cancer several years ago and his surgeon inspired me to pursue colorectal surgery.

Q: Colorectal surgery is fascinating because...

A: It deals with one of the most basic functions of the human body.

Besides breathing and eating, clearing our bowels regularly is a basic requirement of the body. Imagine how uncomfortable you get when you cannot move your bowels.

One of the most common symptoms of colorectal cancer is a change in bowel habits.

Q: If I were to give an analogy for what I do, I would be...

A: A high-class plumber. I clear blockages in patients' bowels and help them to maintain a healthy human piping system - and I'm being paid well to do this job.

Q: A typical day for me starts...

A: When I drive my eldest daughter to the MRT station and my second daughter to her school by 7am.

By 8am, I reach the hospital, where I perform colonoscopy procedures at the day surgery centre before seeing patients at the outpatient clinic.

During a colonoscopy, I examine the large intestine using a flexible tube with a small camera attached to it. This is inserted through the anus.

Operations are scheduled at lunch time or in between clinic cases. I keep a very flexible timetable to suit my patients' schedule.

I may knock off at 5pm or as late as 9pm, as I sometimes have to attend to foreign patients who travel to Singapore to see me.

On weekends, I spend time with my children, for example, by going on boating trips to nearby islands.

Q: I have come across all types of cases...

A: The most common cases that I encounter are piles, followed by anal abscesses (infected cavities filled with pus), anal fissures (tears in the lining of the anus) and colorectal cancer.

I help to treat simple cases of abdominal pain that may arise from gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) or colic, all the way to complex types of cancers.

My patients' ages range from those in their 30s to their 80s.

Q: I love patients who are...

A: Keen to learn about their colorectal conditions and actively participate in their treatment.

They ask many questions during a consultation and even demonstrate understanding of some medical terms when speaking to me.

Q: Patients who get my goat are...

A: Very few. Some patients approach me for help after consulting several other doctors. They would ask me what I think of the recommendations made by other doctors.

They may be confused if what I recommend to them is different from what they have heard, or they may have misunderstood what was conveyed to them earlier.

I work on clearing any questions that they may have and then let them decide which doctor they would prefer to go with.

Q: One little known fact about colorectal cancer is that...

A: It can be cured, but it must be discovered early.

We can even stop cancer in its tracks by picking up and removing pre-cancerous polyps detected during a colonoscopy. These polyps can grow and become cancerous five to 10 years later.

Therefore, I always advise patients to actively participate in health screenings, especially for colorectal cancer.

Q: Things that put a smile on my face are...

A: Words of appreciation from my patients and their family members: A simple "thank you" speaks volumes.

Q: It breaks my heart when...

A: Patients show up too late, such that their disease has already progressed to a very advanced stage.

At these times, even a good surgeon has limited means to help these patients.

Q: I would not trade places for the world because...

A: I love this plumbing task. Plus, someone has to take up this job.

Q: My best tip...

A: People over 50 should go for yearly health screening and those with a family history of colorectal cancer should get screened even earlier.

One way of identifying the cancer early is to use the faecal occult blood test (FOBT), which checks for blood in the stools. This can be an early sign of the disease.

If the FOBT results are positive, the patient will be encouraged to go for a colonoscopy. See your doctor early so that he can help you to achieve the best possible outcome.

Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to for more stories.