Breast cancer survivor’s inspiring journey to nursing

Lori smiles with staff after a radiation session at Blacktown Hospital last year.

Becoming a nurse had never entered Lori Phegan’s mind. Neither had cancer – it didn’t run in her family and she checked her health regularly.

But at 47, Lori’s life took an unexpected turn when she found a lump in her left breast. Soon after the discovery in June 2019, she was diagnosed with a malignant tumour.

“The week in between receiving my diagnosis and having an initial consultation in Westmead Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre was the worst week of my life,” Lori said. “I was shocked and scared, I didn’t know anything about cancer. I didn’t know if I was going to survive.

“After just one hour meeting with Dr Kavitha Kanesalingham in Westmead, I immediately felt relieved. She reassured me that treatment options are very progressive and I had great chances of recovery.”

After completing six sessions of chemotherapy, Lori underwent lumpectomy surgery in Mount Druitt Hospital in November 2019.

Lori Phegan has retrained to become a nurse after being inspired by those who cared for her through cancer treatment.

“I felt so grateful for all the support I received. Doctors and nurses who worked with me were absolutely amazing,” Lori said.

“Usually when people find out you have cancer, they don’t know what to say except `I am sorry’.

“But I was done with being sad! I’ve always loved a good laugh so I appreciated when my surgeon – Dr James French turned out to have the greatest sense of humour. Things like that make such a huge difference for your journey.”

Lori finished her treatment with 17 sessions of targeted Herceptin therapy and 25 sessions of radiotherapy in Blacktown Hospital. In the midst of all this, one particular day stood out when she noticed her 50-year-old nurse wearing a “student nurse” badge.

“’Aren’t you too old to be a student, darling’? I asked the nurse. She laughed and said it’s never too late to learn something new. We chatted, and the nurse told me about taking a career change at the age of 40 and how she never looked back.

“This was a turning point. Before cancer, I never gave much thought about the depth of knowledge a nurse must have. Watching all these amazing nurses care for me made me realise how much we often take their hard work for granted.”

Lori during a chemotherapy session.

Just before the finish line of her cancer treatment, Lori enrolled in an 18-month TAFE course in nursing.  

“Cancer made me re-evaluate everything in my life,” she said. “I realised that people going through such challenging treatment need care and I can give this care to them.

“Having a first-hand experience like mine gives you a totally different perspective. You really understand why patients are cranky, moody or even aggressive.

“Once you’ve been through it yourself, you’re in an empathetic state. Patients don’t need sympathy from health care workers. They need someone to come and say `I know how you’re feeling right now, but you will get through it’.”

Lori started her first nursing placement in August. She is now cancer-free, continues to run her successful online business and care for two children. In the future, she wants to specialise in oncology and ensure a better quality of life for those battling cancer, like she once was.