International Women’s Day holds a personal significance for Dr Cindy Mak. Three years ago, on that March day, she was made Head of Breast Surgery at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Camperdown – just five years after becoming the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s first female breast surgeon, working alongside all-male “giants of surgery”.
Surprisingly though, Dr Mak tells Future Women ahead of the Sydney Breast Cancer Foundation Ladies Lunch later this month, medicine was “not the obvious career choice” when she made the move to Australia from Malaysia as an 18-year-old student.
“I will be honest,” she explains. “I ticked the boxes for the university courses that were hardest to enter and got into the top one [Medicine at Sydney University]. It was a six-year undergraduate course back then, and enrolment was extremely competitive. I remember being completely surprised when I got the Higher School Certificate score for it, even though I worked really hard.”
Her drive, she says, was instilled at a young age; growing up as one of three sisters, her mum put an onus on academic achievement.
“Surgery is not just about cutting. It is dealing with people, both awake and asleep.”
“My mum was, and still is, a strong influence,” Dr Mak explains. “She was a teacher, and only managed to go to university because she won a scholarship. Her five older sisters had to work as soon as they finished high school, to support the oldest son in the family so he could go to university. Mum was therefore determined we would always prioritise education.”
Once her general medical training was complete, her career path become more obvious as she completed a fellowship in general surgery, before moving to Edinburgh in Scotland on a fellowship to train as a breast cancer surgeon.
“Surgery was a very easy decision to make once I was in medicine,” she says. “There’s something about the immediate result that a surgery provides both surgeon and patient that is extremely satisfying. It feels like you’re really making a difference to someone.”
Edinburgh also holds huge personal significance for Dr Mak. During her time there “she learned from some of the world’s finest breast surgeons who were pioneers in their field” – and met her husband, now father to her two young sons.
“I turned down a job in Sydney to stay six months longer,” she explains. “Partly because I’d met my husband, and partly because the work was so interesting. It was a terrifying thing to decline a consultant position when everyone was looking for surgical jobs, but it was the right thing to do. When I returned to Sydney, I was offered three consultant positions and I accepted a job at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. I was their first female breast surgeon. The surgeons in the unit at that time were giants of surgery in their era. It was a privilege to be part of that group.”
Now, Dr Mak is a “giant” in her own right, heading up Sydney’s leading breast cancer treatment unit as one of five female breast cancer surgeons. So, what’s the day-to-day like?
“On a typical day, I rise at 5.30am to try to get some work done before the kids get up (there is an awful lot of paperwork and administration in my job),” she explains. “The first appointment of the day is usually at 8am. I operate two days a week, and find operating easier than consulting in a clinic, despite what people might think. Seeing patients who are distressed and afraid is emotionally challenging, and as all patients are different, it takes skill to navigate what each patient and their family needs.”
She adds: “I’ve discovered that preparation is key for any consultation that I anticipate may be tricky. My staff get patients to send in as much information as possible prior to my meeting them, so I have a sense of what I’m dealing with. I’m usually home between 7 and 8pm. Sometimes I don’t see the kids for a few days in a row because of the time they go to sleep and wake, but I suspect that happens to many of my colleagues. I think the challenges for female and male surgeons are very similar – they relate to work-life balance, and the changing nature of surgical training and funding of healthcare.”
“It was a terrifying thing to decline a consultant position when everyone was looking for surgical jobs, but it was the right thing to do.”
One of those challenges is breaking bad news to patients, something that, Dr Mak strongly believes, should never become routine.
“I don’t have a magic trick for dealing with the emotional side of this job,” Dr Mak says. “I think that it’s good that I do have days where I struggle with it – it means I’m not completely detached from the patients I treat, and I would want that from a medical practitioner that I see. I’m learning that to avoid burning out, I need to take more breaks and holidays and also that I need to sleep more!”
Working out what each patient needs, and ensuring they get the best care and support, will always be her driving force – in and out of the operating theatre. That’s been made ever-so-slightly easier thanks to two things: research and wellness schemes partly funded by donations to Sydney Breast Cancer Foundation.
“Breast cancer patients have been lucky in that we’ve had some great scientific breakthroughs recently – such as targeted therapies,” Dr Mak says.
“At Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, our patients are also lucky in other ways. We look after patients in a holistic manner, and attempt to be as inclusive as possible. We have a program that allows financially stressed patients to access our Living Room therapies, such as acupuncture and physiotherapy. We have a wig library open to all patients. These advances and programs are made possible, in part, by the generous donations via the Sydney Breast Cancer Foundation. One component of the fundraising effort is the annual Ladies Long Lunch which is always a fun day for a great cause.”
So, what would her advice be to young women considering her vocation as a career?
“My advice to anyone with aspirations to become a surgeon is this: Surgery is not just about cutting,” she says. “It is dealing with people, both awake and asleep. Everything we do is done in a team – we do not work alone. If you love working with people, your enjoyment of surgery will last many years.”
The Sydney Breast Cancer Foundation Ladies Long Lunch will be held at the Hyatt Regency Sydney on Friday 18th October and is now sold out.
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