When it comes to talking about cancer, Dr Chantel Thornton is keen for people to stop thinking of it as the dreaded ‘c’ word.
Dr Thornton, who leads the multidisciplinary breast cancer team at Epworth HealthCare, says there is reason to have hope when diagnosed with breast cancer.
“More cancers are being diagnosed and we’re finding some which might not even cause problems, but breast cancer has great survival rates,” Dr Thornton said.
“People are living a long time after breast cancer. More people are dying of heart disease and stroke than cancer and yet no one reacts the same way to heart disease as they do when they get cancer. We need to change the way we look at cancer as a disease and treat it more like a chronic disease like arthritis or diabetes that you need to monitor every day. The chances are those with breast cancer will live a very long time. This will be a little bump in the road, but you will be ok.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is still the most common cancer among Australian women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer). Survival rates are now seeing 89 out of every 100 women in Australia diagnosed with invasive breast cancer surviving five or more years beyond diagnosis.
“It is a disease of the western world; there is no doubt,” Dr Thornton said.
“Cancer is often lifestyle related – we are doing a lot of things we hadn’t done previously – like having babies later, not breastfeeding, eating higher processed foods and saturated fat, having a higher BMI and living a sedentary life. It’s not rocket science; it’s the way our society has evolved.”
Dr Thornton has a very personal reason for working in this field, after switching her surgical specialty from trauma. She has a very strong family history of breast cancer, with three aunts, a grandmother and great grandmother contracting the disease.
“Being a general trauma surgeon was almost like running a marathon in the trauma centre, working extremely long hours and waking up in the middle of night to meet a chopper landing. It’s exciting but you don’t see the outcomes of many patients; it’s not so much about building a personal connection to patient or family but fixing them up and sending them on,” Dr Thornton explained.
“As a breast cancer surgeon, I get to do something to improve women’s lives. I get to follow the patients for a very long time and get to know them really well. It’s more like being a physician than other specialities where I see them every year for follow up and become part of their lives.”
Dr Thornton admits that her speciality is also highly emotional.
“My patients are having their worst day when they meet me and I tell them they have breast cancer. It can be emotionally very demanding. But we can also provide such great hope. The statistics are extremely good and treatments so much better than previously. Plus, surgical reconstruction techniques are now much more advanced, meaning excellent outcomes leading to very full lives. It’s so rewarding.”
Epworth recently installed a new 3D mammography machine, which enables 3D tomosynethesis imaging, allowing extra clear imaging especially for those with dense breasts.
With many cancers, lifestyle related, Dr Thornton advises staying healthy with exercise (four hours a week, with 150 of those minutes aerobic exercise and 90 minutes core strength exercises), eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, minimising alcohol and not smoking.
“Your immune system is so important and is affected by your mindset. Anxiety and depression do impact the way your immune system processes disease, so it’s really important to find internal happiness and positivity, which can be really hard.
“I know that cancer patients don’t think too far ahead; they look at each day as a new day and find something to be grateful for every day.”