Dr Chantel Thornton

Dr Chantel Thornton

Specialist Breast Cancer Surgeon / BMSc (hons) MBBS (hons ) FRACS


Becoming a doctor. Is this the career path less encouraged for girls in Year 12? According to today’s guest, Dr Chantel Thornton, a Specialist Breast Cancer Surgeon, it’s incredibly important to “encourage women to infiltrate medicine, and encourage them to actually become surgeons.” We couldn’t agree more.

Dr Chantel Thornton, is one of the most highly sought after breast cancer surgeons in the world. Growing up in Tasmania, Chantel knew at age nine that she wanted to become a doctor. Her rewarding journey weaves its way from Australia to Hong Kong and back again, studying at a plethora of colleges and universities. Her career so far has earned her more accolades then the Oscar’s – but none is greater than the sanctimonious achievement of SAVING LIVES.

The pathway in medicine is quite a clear and distinct. From enrolling in university to qualifying as a surgeon, the process can take up to 16 years. Currently a whopping 52% of all Australia medical graduates are female, but only 8% of all surgeons in Australia are women. This is the gauntlet, it’s time to rise girls, it’s time to multiply these stats.

This career story is the epitome of hard work, heart work and dedication. If you only digest one thing today, then this needs to be it. Let’s dive into the #careerstory of Dr Chantel Thornton.

in theatre

Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how your experience shaped the person you are in the career you are in today?

I grew up in Tasmania mainly in a small country town and therefore my exposure to the medical profession was limited.  I had several relatives, including three maternal aunts and a maternal grandmother, and a maternal first cousin that were diagnosed with breast cancer.

As a nine year old I remember my favourite aunt dying of breast cancer and I recognised that this was a late diagnosis due to limited medical specialists in her area.  She was required to drive at least two and a half hours to visit a breast specialist, and it was then that I realised that it was important for all Australians to access excellent health care. From that moment on I realised that I wanted to be a doctor.  My grandfather bought me a doctor’s kit at age six so I had shown interest at an even earlier age.

Where did you go to High School and how was that experience for you?

I went to Catholic high schools, Marist Regional College in Burnie, Tasmania and also St. Patrick’s College in Launceston, Tasmania.  I was fortunate to have excellent teachers who took interest in my learning and I was strongly involved in a variety of extracurricular activities including sport and debating and held several leadership roles during the senior years.

There was a significant emphasis on sporting activities at the school rather than academia and the arts which I felt was frustrating and it was a co-educational school and I found, in particular in the science and maths classes, women were severely underrepresented and it was important to remain focused at all times.  I was lucky to be in class rooms with a small number of students as it gave me the ability to develop good relationships with the teachers and that then fostered my education and my love of learning.

Did your high school play an important role in helping you to choose your further education and career?

No my high school did not play a significant contribution to my career choice.  I had decided that I was going to be a doctor before attending high school.

Did you go to college, TAFE, university or other, take us through the course that you studied and why you chose them.

I studied Bachelor of Medical Science at the University of Tasmania as part of my medical degree.  I also undertook an Honours Degree at the University of Hong Kong after being awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Hong Kong.  I also went on to do Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery with first class honours.  I was Dux of the University and won eight university prizes.  I then went on to enrol with the College of Surgeons while working as a doctor to undertake surgical training – this involved  a basic surgical qualification and during this time I also lectured at Monash University before undertaking the Basic Surgical Exam. This was followed by advanced surgical training for a further 4 years and culminated after many hours of formal study and courses around Australia in a three day examination process.  I was awarded a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and became a surgeon.

The pathway in medicine is quite a clear and distinct pathway and from enrolling in university to qualifying as a surgeon the process took 16 years.  The medical degree itself with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor of Medical Science and was a six year course  to be a doctor followed by 10 years of study and working full time as a doctor before qualifying as a surgeon.

Female doctor, Dr Chantel Thornton

Dr Chantel Thornton after Graduating at the University of Tasmania

Tell us about your career journey so far, who you have worked for explain any highlights.

I have done a variety of jobs since completing my internship at the Royal Hobart Hospital in Tasmania. I did one year of training at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Victoria followed by multiple locums throughout Australia.  I then went forward to undertake surgical training mainly through the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.  This required several 6 month secondments to many country destinations including Hobart, Frankston, Williamstown, Sunshine and Footscray. During this time multiple conferences  and courses were attended around the world.  Followed by a fellowship at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. I have also had the opportunity to sit on several philanthropic medical boards and chair several committees.

How did you get into the job that you are in now?

It is quite a clear trajectory from starting at university as a medical student to becoming a surgeon. There is a clear pathway that the College of Surgeons coordinate.

breast cancer surgeon

Dr Chantel Thornton in surgery

Women in medicine, breast cancer surgeon

Alert and focused in surgery

What is the hardest part of your current job?

My current job is extremely rewarding but at times can be emotionally harrowing particularly telling young women, who have young children, that they have aggressive breast cancer.  The hours can be long and during the training process there was a significant number of after hours call and many sleepless nights.  The surgery itself can also occasionally be stressful and requires a significant amount of concentration, dedication and attention to detail. The job can be physically challenging as you often need to perform surgery for many hours and in the trauma patient situation this can include operating all through the night followed by a further day of week and then evenings and weekends spent studying.

What does a typical business day look like in your current job?

A typical business day usually starts with a ward round at 7.30am followed by a session in the operating theatre at 8.00am, followed by an afternoon meeting at 12.30pm to 1.30pm, followed by afternoon consulting from 1.30pm until 5.30pm. Then  it’s on to evening meetings which may be meetings to do with several of the philanthropic boards that I am involved with, or journal clubs or multi disciplinary team meetings. After those meetings I often return emails late in the evening, followed by dictation, checking patients results, preparing for the following days consulting and operating lists, and an evening ward round to check on your post-op patients.

The weekends can be spent doing ward rounds, operating or doing paper work, attending conferences/ meetings and on self education. The life of a surgeon can involve the surgeon being required to be on call 24 hours/day 7 days/week.

Who was my greatest inspiration/hero growing up and why?

My greatest inspiration was my aunt who was a pharmacist and also President of the Tasmanian Pharmaceutical Guild and an adviser to the Health Minister for Australia. She was also a wife and mother of three children.  She worked in a small town and was strongly engaged with her community and passionate about delivering health to rural communities. She was a lecturer at the University of Tasmania. She was kind and considerate as well as inclusive and collaborative, respectful of other people’s opinions and intelligent. She used her intelligence and caring nature to contribute to the health of her community, and influence national leaders.

Peter Mac, Breast Cancer surgeon, Women in Medicine

Enjoying the new Tea Room at Peter Mac

What advice would you give to other girls who are interested in your career?

I would tell them that medicine is an extremely rewarding profession however it is demanding and there is a certain degree of personal sacrifice and significant dedication and commitment that is required to both the profession and to your patients.

That it is important to encourage women to infiltrate medicine and that 8% of all surgeons in Australia are women and that we are significantly underrepresented in every speciality field despite the fact that 52% of all medical graduates in Australia are now female.

Women should not be discouraged from entering into the speciality fields of medicine.  Women have significant contribution to give to medicine and should be encouraged to seek mentors early in their career, male or female mentors that can assist them in their journey through the arduous training program.

I would encourage women to maintain their individuality and their femininity while continuing to be professional and focused on their patients at all times. I believe that integral to the practice of medicine is a patient centred approach, and that women are unique in their ability to do this.

What are the most valuable resources that you turn to constantly for inspiration, including words of wisdom for girls wanting to get into medicine.

  • I will often seek out the opinion of an experienced mentor / professor or other colleagues to discuss cases. It is important to maintain good relationships with your colleagues as you generally work in a team together – all with a single focus- to achieve the best possible results for your patients. I also have access to a variety of journals such as the Breast Journal, and websites.  I use the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons website– their online library and I am a member of a variety of surgical associations around the world including the American Society of Breast Surgeons.
  • I often learn from my patient’s particularly about empathy, love and about caring for patients with metastatic diseases. I also regularly meet with my many mentors who are from a variety of different surgical specialities. I am connected to a group of women known as the Victorian Medical Women’s Service and am fortunate to have much support of many of my colleagues.
  • I would tell young women not to be put off by the intense hours and the commitment and dedication required in medicine and to be confident in their own abilities.  To always stand up for what they believe is right. I encourage young woman to maintain their own independence and have a passion for what they love to do and to let other people know about their passion. Put themselves in front of people and never give up on their dreams. Always offer to be involved in activities that will help you learn and that can make a difference to other people’s lives.
  • To keep men as their allies and encourage collaboration with men. To seek to do more to improve the journey for women that have come before them. To be enthusiastic, to always try your very best and to achieve more than people ask you to in order to stand out from the crowd. I would tell them not to be scared of commitment and never to be disheartened or scared of failure.  

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