INSTYLE: How has your childhood influenced your work?
CHANTEL THORNTON: “I grew up knowing that both my grandmother and great-grandmother had mastectomies, and three aunts had breast cancer. My favourite aunt actually died of breast cancer when I was 11, so I saw her going through her treatment—losing her hair, losing her breasts, having radiotherapy. We lived in a rural area and my aunt had a late diagnosis of her disease. She had a sore arm and [was told] to ‘just keep doing physio’ because she worked on a computer and ‘that was the reason why she had a sore arm’ when, in actual fact, she had quite advanced axillary metastasis from a fairly large breast cancer. I knew from a young age that we could do something to make it better for women, and particularly ladies living in rural areas. I just wanted to make a difference to women’s lives and to assist with the early diagnosis of breast cancer and also, now in our community, the prevention of breast cancer.”
Only 29 per cent of surgeons-in-training are women. How are you working on altering this statistic?
“What I do now is take every opportunity I have to meet female school students and undergraduate medical students. I invite them to come sit with me in the room and invite them to consultations. I encourage them to come to lectures I do, and I try to engage with them. I suppose it’s about collaborating with people, but also fostering an interest in surgery and letting them know there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ surgical practice. I want them to see my model of care, how I run my practice, how I communicate with my patients, to show them it doesn’t have to be a boring industry—you can develop your surgical practice to suit your own personality.”
Why do you think it’s harder for women to become surgeons?
“I think that surgery is all-encompassing, so it requires very many hours. And I’m not saying that other specialists don’t do that, but it is often quite unpredictable. And it can be difficult, particularly for women in their childbearing years, to cope with the unpredictability of surgery. I also think that because there are so many men, maybe young girls don’t visualise themselves in that position. Traditionally, most surgeons have been fairly feared by people in the community, or their patients. According to what many of my patients tell me, they have not felt the courage to even ask their surgeons questions about their disease. In my practice, it would be unusual not to ask me [questions]; all my patients I operate on have my mobile number. So it’s telling young people, ‘You can be authentic,’ and ‘You can do things the way that suits you,’ providing you give the patients the best care. The model doesn’t have to be the same as what the male surgeons are doing.”
Breast cancer is the most common cancer but with the highest survival rate. What’s your theory on why it’s on the rise and what can we do?
“Well, it’s an ageing population, so the older or longer we live, the more likely we are to get any cancer, because our DNA doesn’t repair as well. But mostly it’s lifestyle related...It’s a disease of the Western world, it’s a disease of the high socio-economic class. And then breast density—women who have quite dense breasts—are more likely to get breast cancer at a younger age. But generally I think a lot of it is not rocket science, a lot of it is what we’re doing to ourselves.”
Your consulting rooms are very pink!
“I’ve actually always loved pink, even before I was a breast cancer surgeon. I think bright pink is a very powerful colour: it gives hope and it gives encouragement and it’s vibrant. Most ladies who come [to me] with breast cancer will live a very long time. I want them to feel energised; I want them to feel in control of their own health; I want them to feel like they’ve come to a place of hope, a place of power, and that they can feel in control of their medical management.”
Given your small-town upbringing, you are passionate about helping rural women. Tell us about your upcoming project.
“I’ve bought a little house down the road from my consulting room [in Melbourne] and I’m going to turn that into accommodation for the families of patients [rural, interstate and international] undergoing operations, who are having breast reconstructions or...chemotherapy, so that they can stay right opposite the hospital but in a beautiful, homely environment. I want to try to make the environment more conducive to health rather than sickness—to let patients know that there is hope. So then after they get treated we say, ‘Okay, let’s have a look at your lifestyle and let’s see it from a rehabilitation perspective—how can we make life better for the future.’ So it’s about continuing to collaborate with them to make sure that their health continues to be brilliant, both from a clinical perspective but also from a psychosocial perspective as well.”
Do you prioritise self-care for yourself, and how?
“Yeah, very much so. I try to exercise regularly, five times per week, and sometimes that can just be 20 minutes a day of either walking, running [or] going to the gym. I try to spend as much quality time with my friends and family as I possibly can and I’m very time-orientated and time-focused, so I make sure I look after my own health so that I can give the best care to my patients.”
And finally, do you have a quote you live by?
“I love the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?’ because I think in society everyone is quite happy to reassure people or complain about things. But if you actually ask them, ‘What did you last do for someone else?’ it will be hard sometimes for people to think about that. I think if we thought more about what we could do for others, it would help people under-stand how lucky we actually are.”