In conjunction with the International Women’s Day—a global event celebrated on 8 March annually—MIMS Today’s editorial desk is proud to present seven profoundly inspiring stories for the entire month of March. Putting forward the notion that “women are healers”, we bring to you our #HealsInHeels special feature—capturing a month of amazing, empowering stories—dedicated to our women in healthcare.

Our highlights of Part 2 are three leading women doctors who are carving their name in the surgical field. As they challenge the status quo, these remarkable women chose to be in a field most notable to be male-dominated. #BeBoldforChange, they are strong and brave—and they certainly dare to be different. Next, on the hot seat of our #DareTo series is Dr Azlina Firzah Aziz, Consultant Breast Surgeon.

It has to be when I completed my Masters in Surgery (UKM) within four years (on time) – with my sanity and body intact!” shares Dr Azlina, reminiscing her proudest moment of her career.
It has to be when I completed my Masters in Surgery (UKM) within four years (on time) – with my sanity and body intact!” shares Dr Azlina, reminiscing her proudest moment of her career.

One on one with Dr Azlina Firzah Aziz

Only one of 40 breast and endocrine surgeons in Malaysia, Dr Azlina never chose the easy path. A headstrong and passionate woman, Dr Azlina is a clear example of success. Driven by the sheer determination to succeed in anything she puts her mind to, she battled numerous obstacles and challenges to graduate from University Malaya with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS). This woman of grit continued to power through the next 11 years, before she obtained her Masters in Surgery at University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)—of which during that time, she became a wife and mother.

Despite having an all-rounded career—Dr Azlina is a member and council member of numerous organisations, e.g. Malaysian Oncological Society, Hospis Malaysia and the Breast Chapter, College of Surgeons Malaysia, under the Academy of Medicine Malaysia—exuding a humble, yet outspoken demeanour.

Encouraging women—particularly women of medicine—Dr Azlina shares her hardships and milestones of her career, in hopes of propelling the involvement of women in healthcare – and ultimately society.

1. Share with us your journey—how did you get to where you are today?
Through my experience as Medical Officer in my early years at a government hospital in Kuala Lumpur, I realised I would be better suited in a surgical field rather than anything else. Surgery was the most interesting and less boring compared to other specialties—in my humble opinion! [Laughs] As for why I chose to specialise in breast cancer, it was through the observations of "mental discomfort" that women have when being examined by male doctors—particularly, pertaining to breast problems—and that gave me a clue of what I wanted to specialise in. I thought female patients would feel more comfortable in the presence of female surgeons.

2. Were there any specific challenges and obstacles that you had to overcome to get where you are right now?
Where do I start? There are simply too many to count! Truth be told, being in a surgical field is always more difficult for a woman anywhere in the world, as it is a male-dominated field or a “big boys club” (and still is!)—although most men in surgery will disclaim this. The hours are much longer; one has to be on one's feet longer. (Oh, my varicose veins!)

Not to mention the arduous journey of sub-specialising in a specific field of surgery. After completing service as a medical officer, one has to apply for training or masters, which is four years of pure hard work—and that is if the right exams are passed at the correct time, if not it is extended. During the duration of pursuing masters, publications, theses, writings, audits and exams must all be completed hand-in-hand with attending intensive courses or training workshops. After reaching the milestone of being a general surgeon, one has to go through three more years of training to sub-specialise—for example breast or endocrine surgery.

Don’t forget, women have personal lives too—get married, get pregnant and have children. Regardless the culture or ethnicity they belong to, women will feel obligated to fulfil their duties to care for the family. Therefore, you see that women usually drop out of sub-specialising due to “life issues”. It is even stated in the local Masters agreement, that you cannot take maternity leave during Masters. So, if you get pregnant and you want to take leave, it is on your own leave, and you have to replace that time. Not many have the patience to go through all that and juggle their family and work to achieve some sort of balance.

On another hand, when female surgeons are more outspoken, they get ‘penalised’ in many ways—perhaps, not included in certain cases, not allowed to do certain cases, or simple not given enough opportunity. Nobody talks about it, but you can always sense there is some unfairness. But I always tell others, if you really want something—just work hard and be a team player. Have Faith in the AlMighty, and maintain the empathy that you want to contribute to society. Just grit your teeth and get down to it!

3. As a healthcare professional—with the level of commitment and work load—how do you achieve a work-life balance?
What balance? Let’s get real, here. [Laughs] One needs to earn enough, and at the same time have some holidays in between. So, if I have conferences or meetings, maybe I just take one or two days extra to go around the city. Most of us tend to tag along on these short holidays, because it is pretty much impossible [to take a holiday].

Unless, I want to have a family holiday once or twice a year, and I just scoot off for one or two weeks. But then, everything has to stop. So, to be cordial to my patients, I plan and tell my patients that I am on holiday, and organise my clinic so patients are not booked while I am away.

And of course, on weekends, I tend to work half-days on Saturdays, but it usually ends at 2.00pm or 3.00pm. By the time I wrap up, write up all the medical reports, and off and on, I have association meetings or events to attend—there goes my whole Saturday! I just have to cut myself into little pieces. That’s life. You just need to organise.

4. What are your hopes and dreams for the future of breast surgery in Malaysia?
That more women have better knowledge and know their rights to proper breast care. They must not seek a medical opinion from those who do not practise breast surgery less than a third of their total practice time, as it is incumbent on them to get the best breast care advice possible. Once you are armed with better knowledge, you cannot be misled down a "rabbit hole". There is also still a lot to do to improve breast health knowledge. Women are still coming too late with breast cancer either by ignorance or seeking wrong alternative care.

There is also a need to spread the information that women MUST NOT inject their breasts with fillers, collagen, placenta or anything else (to increase their dimensions), as that will prevent early detection of breast cancer. It is already happening in Malaysia where women are being fooled into breast enlargements by direct injections—the correct method for breast enlargement is by using implants and done by well-trained and qualified plastic surgeons, not by shop-lot untrained individuals. Cheaper is not always better!

5. What is your advice or words of wisdom to those who aspire to follow your footsteps?
If you are passionate about your interest in Surgery, pursue it with the most effort you can muster and never get disappointed—even if you occasionally fail in your journey. It is not an easy journey and takes a lot of effort.

If you think you experience gender biasness in your career, firstly, make sure it’s not in your imagination; but also, don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t let any one individual ruin your career, because it’s not worth it. I don’t believe in keeping quiet – although sometimes, the person/persons that you discuss with, may ask you not to rock the boat. If you feel very strongly that it is jeopardising your prospects or career, you should speak up. Just get up, and move on with your dream!

6. As one of the leading women in healthcare, what would you like to say to fellow women HCPs out there?
We need more assertive women in healthcare. Women need to build a support system around them to succeed in pursuing their ambitions in healthcare, unlike men. It is because the ‘burden’ of pregnancy and childbearing falls on their shoulders, hence they need that support from family and society.

Once that is in place, women can produce amazing results in their lives. Society also needs to continue or start embracing equality of genders starting from childhood; both must share responsibilities in household chores, etc. When that is seen as normal mainstream behavior, both men and women will have better respect and awareness of their roles in society.

Let’s hope for a lady Director General of Malaysia’s Ministry of Health! It’s high time for a woman to be promoted to that post. I hope I am still alive when that happens! [Smiles] MIMS

“If you are passionate about your interest in Surgery, pursue it with the most effort you can muster and never get disappointed—even if you occasionally fail in your journey.” – Dr Azlina Firzah Aziz

Make sure to check back on 28 March for more inspiring stories of our #WOW leading women in healthcare who #DareTo challenge the status quo. Receive the latest updates when you sign up for a free MIMS account!