Global·FEATURES13.05.2024

Amy Chang: Curing Cancer with Mentorship & Collaboration

In a world where cancer affects countless lives, Dr. Amy Chang is the ray of hope. This remarkable oncologist, one of our JESSICA Most Successful Women awardees, has dedicated her career to groundbreaking advancements in cancer treatment, driven by an unwavering commitment to improving patient outcomes. From her work in MR-guided brachytherapy for cervical cancer to her instrumental role in establishing Hong Kong's first proton therapy service, Dr. Amy’s impact resonates far beyond the walls of her institution. Her story is one of resilience, passion, and a pursuit of innovation, making her not only a game-changer in the field of oncology but also an inspiration to aspiring medical professionals everywhere. This is the journey of Dr. Amy and what it took to revolutionize cancer care in the face of unprecedented challenges.

When Dr. Amy stepped into the world of oncology after her first year of medical school, she knew she was walking a path that would not only define her career but also transform cancer treatment as we know it.

Dr. Amy Chang, JESSICA Magazine

The decision to specialize in oncology was fueled by a deep-seated desire to tackle one of medicine's most formidable challenges head-on. "I wanted to choose a specialty with new developments and not just regular prescriptions for patients, but something more groundbreaking.” Even as a young medical student, Dr. Amy recognized that the key to unlocking the future of cancer treatment lay in the relentless pursuit of innovation. Her early exposure to cutting-edge research, including the compelling potential of gene therapy, only served to solidify her resolve. "Back then, it was 20 years ago when I felt like gene therapy could be one of the most important innovations and could be an important option for cancer treatment," she recalls. Though gene therapy has yet to become a mainstream solution, Dr. Amy's unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of what's possible has propelled her to the forefront of the field.

Having the right mentors can make all the difference. For Dr. Amy, the guidance and support of two extraordinary women – Professor Anne Lee and Dr. Inda Soong – were instrumental in shaping her groundbreaking career.

"Professor Lee constantly encouraged me to pursue this, and there was also a funding opportunity in the hospital for me to go to Cambridge and Vienna," she recalls. "These are the two important institutes that are very developed in learning medical technology." However, it wasn't just the opportunity to train at world-renowned facilities that set her on the path to success. The unwavering belief and encouragement of her mentors recognized her potential and pushed her to aim higher.

"As a boss, Dr. Inda Soong encouraged me to take on an application for funding for training," she explains. Armed with cutting-edge knowledge and a renewed sense of purpose, she returned to her department, ready to revolutionize cervical cancer treatment. "I think that was a very eye-opening experience because, at that time, I was given this opportunity to learn something new from a well-known institute," she reflects. "I was also able to come back and implement this new technology in the department. I was leading this change at the hospital then." However, for her, success is more than individual achievement. It's about building a collaborative environment where every team member is empowered to make a difference. "Whenever you work at an institute, you need to have your team to achieve something," she emphasizes. “That's about collaboration. That is constantly in my mind. I'm constantly trying to hope that I can strive to have a dream team where you're working together for a common goal." With her sights set firmly on the future, there's no doubt that she will continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in the fight against cervical cancer – and inspire a new generation of women to follow in her footsteps.

Fighting cancer is about sharing knowledge, sparking inspiration, and empowering the next generation of oncologists to carry the torch.

Dr. Amy is leveraging her influence to drive meaningful change in cancer care in Hong Kong and throughout the Greater Bay Area. "I realized that there are different healthcare systems, but then there are also a lot of similarities," she explains. "Being a university staff member, I understand we should continue training and knowledge sharing." From organizing health talks that reach hundreds of thousands of viewers to participating in conferences and workshops that bring together the brightest minds in oncology, Dr. Amy is at the forefront of a powerful movement to share cancer knowledge.

"Maybe we could organize some health talks with different institutes in China. What amazes me is that the hit rates are so huge; probably around 100,000 people watch those webinars. You can realize that the coverage could be immense," she marvels. For Dr. Amy, it is about recognizing the importance of collaboration and building a shared vision for a future where cancer is no longer a death sentence. "Although I’m not pioneering this, my seniors have led this, I feel that all of us can contribute," she reflects. "It is important. I'm happy to contribute a little to this and the teaching and knowledge sharing." With her unwavering dedication to education and her boundless passion for making a difference, there's no limit to the impact she will continue to have in the fight against cancer.

In the fast-paced world of cancer treatment, where breakthroughs can mean the difference between life and death, immunotherapy has emerged as a game-changer.

"I think one breakthrough is immunotherapy drugs," she explains. "That's the kind of drug that stimulates the immune system by giving an injection to trigger our immune defense to fight cancer." The results speak for themselves: patients are living longer, healthier lives, thanks to the transformative impact of immunotherapy.

But Dr. Amy isn't content to rest on her laurels. With an eye always on the horizon, she envisions a future where immunotherapy is just one part of a multi-pronged approach to conquering cancer. "I would see immunotherapy being the key player in oncology in the decade to come," she predicts. "There could be a lot of different kinds of immunotherapies, maybe even cancer vaccines..." The possibilities are endless when combined with other cutting-edge treatments like radiotherapy, which has seen its share of breakthroughs in recent years. "The other thing I would see that would make a huge impact is how we combine other modalities, for example, radiotherapy, drug treatments, and immunotherapy combined with radiotherapy," she notes. It's this kind of innovative thinking, this willingness to push the boundaries of what's possible, that sets her apart as a true visionary in the fight against cancer.

Demands of a medical career can often feel all-consuming; she shared how to have a work-work-life balance in a stressful career.

Doctors know firsthand the challenges of juggling patient care, research, and family life. "It is a huge challenge to manage all these," she admits. "But I always tell myself that this is what I love to do." This deep-seated passion for her work fuels Dr. Amy's unwavering commitment to her patients, even in the face of an unpredictable schedule. "I think with private practice, it's a little bit hard because sometimes you would get this call from your patient saying, 'I need to come into the hospital,' and you can't say, 'I'm having my me time and I'm not answering my calls,'" she explains. However, rather than allowing the demands of her job to consume her, Dr. Amy has mastered the art of finding joy and fulfillment in the moments in between. "When I go home, I will try to spend time with my family and kids and make sure everything is in the right order. She shares that “I also spend some time doing what I love, such as exercising and trying to motivate my husband to exercise with me," she shares with a laugh. "I also joined a Chinese classics class to feel that I want to learn something new. So, you can always make time for something you're interested in." It's this kind of intentional, balanced approach to life that she hopes to inspire in the next generation of oncologists. By modeling a career that is both deeply meaningful and deeply fulfilling, she is proving that it is possible to have it all with passion, adaptability, and a little creativity.

Dr. Amy proudly shows us the artwork made by her two kids she put on the walls of her office for her patients and herself to see every day. A positive reminder for why she does the work she does.

Dr. Amy's work at Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital (HKSH) in developing new proton therapy techniques for curing breast cancer exemplifies what can be achieved when vision and dedication come together.

"I want to give all the credit to the hospital, really," she enthuses. "Even I was surprised to read in a newspaper media release that they had the idea of having proton therapy close to 20 years ago, way before I joined the hospital." It highlights the hospital's foresight and leadership that they were exploring the possibilities of proton therapy long before it became a reality. “A lot of collaborative work went into this because they sent out a team to visit different centers and explore the possibility of setting this up in Hong Kong, you know, the way of doing this," she explains. While her role in the project has been crucial, particularly in establishing training protocols and introducing the service to the city, she quickly gives credit where it's due. "They did a lot of work a decade before this became real. So, I now observe and learn from these people at my hospital how to make this reality." With over 100 patients already treated since the service began in July and plans to publish data on their approach and outcomes, HKSH is poised to become a global leader in the fight against cancer. And with trailblazers like Dr. Amy at the helm, there's no limit to what they can achieve.

In a field where life and death often hang in the balance, what does it take to succeed as a woman in oncology?

"I would say that it's not particularly gender-specific, but rather the ability to put on different hats at different times," she explains. "Sometimes you have to adapt to different situations and be able to relate to your patient at different stages." It's a perspective that has served her well throughout her career as she's navigated cancer treatment. But it's also a message she's passionate about passing on to the next generation of women oncologists. "I think we should tell the younger, future young women doctors that we need to be adaptable," she emphasizes. "We need to adapt to different situations instead of assuming that we should or should not do certain things." She advises that success in oncology is about being a good listener, staying up-to-date with the latest treatments, and connecting with patients on a deep, human level. It's about having the flexibility to pivot when necessary and the emotional intelligence to navigate the most challenging moments with grace and compassion. It's a lesson that she hopes will inspire a new generation of female doctors to pursue their dreams, no matter their obstacles. Because in the end, as she knows all too well, the fight against cancer knows no gender – only the unbreakable human spirit that refuses to give up.

Written by: Jeremy Chapnick
Photos by: Raymond Chan, Amy Chang