I didn’t know what my cancer patients were going through until I was diagnosed


I’d had breast cysts before, so I wasn’t worried about another round lump appearing in my left breast when I was 40.

The first time I felt one was in 2008, just after my husband proposed to her. The next I found was in the right breast in June 2014, and then another in the left breast in December of that year.

I was in the shower when I felt them—smooth, round lumps that felt like classic cysts—and they were.

The mammogram results came back as normal and an ultrasound showed that my breasts had many small cysts, common in women in their late 30s and 40s.

Then, six months later, I noticed another lump while I was getting dressed—on the edge of my cleavage.

I swear it appeared overnight. It felt like a new cyst and as a breast surgeon I wasn’t worried. It was my mother who led me to get it checked.

I hadn’t told her about the first cyst until after I had the mammogram and she was sad I didn’t tell her sooner. In my mind, I just didn’t want to worry her. But I took her feelings on board, and this time, when I found another one, I told her.

I was seen by the female surgeon who had trained me, and was also a good friend, at the hospital where my husband works.

I had gone alone.

Liz O'Riordan in hospital

After so many years in the business, I thought I knew what chemo would be like and what breast cancer patients were going through, but I had no idea (Photo: Supplied)

The mammography was normal. So I had an ultrasound and was curious to know what the cyst looked like – like I did ultrasounds on my own patients.

The radiologist placed the probe on my chest and we both looked at the screen. I saw a clear cancer. I didn’t have to wait for a biopsy.

A harmless lump, such as a cyst, has a clear border on an ultrasound. Cancers have an irregular outline and cast a shadow. This is what my lump looked like.

I felt sick in my stomach. Reality hit me and I went into hands-on mode. I asked her if she was going to do a biopsy. She said yes and confirmed my suspicions.

Within a week I started chemo, followed by a mastectomy and radiotherapy.

I had been a consultant breast surgeon for two years, caring for cancer patients for six years before that. Even though the oncologists prescribed chemo and cared for patients, in my job I would be the one telling the ladies they needed chemotherapy.

After so many years in the business, I thought I knew what chemo would be like and what breast cancer patients were going through, but I had no idea.

Liz, smiling

I didn’t foresee how hard it is to decide what my breasts mean to me (Picture: Dr Sukh/The Waiting Room)

I would see them half way through chemo to discuss surgery and then again before the last cycle to discuss surgeries. I saw them bald and frail, but I didn’t know what it was like for them to go through chemo.

I didn’t ask and they didn’t tell me. I only saw them in their good weeks before the next cycle was due to start.

I didn’t realize you had lost all your body hair, not just the hair on your head – free Hollywood on the NHS. The constipation, crying on the toilet with bleeding piles and stomach cramps.

The brain fog, the crippling pain and headache, my husband felt useless because he couldn’t make me better. I didn’t foresee how difficult it is to decide what my breasts mean to me.

It was very difficult to be on the other side of this process and learn how to be a patient. My surgeon was a friend, a mentor. We had to stop being friends because it’s very hard to operate on someone you know.

I tried to tell her where to put the scar, what stitches to use, and she had to tell me to stop and let her do her job. I was still trying to keep control. The surgery team were all women I’d worked with in that hospital and it was emotional for all of us.

My treatment lasted a total of nine months. That includes chemo, a mastectomy, implant reconstruction, removing my lymph nodes, and three weeks of radiotherapy.

Liz, standing

I even told my husband to leave me and marry someone with two breasts and a libido (Picture: Dr. Sukh/The Waiting Room)

I went into immediate menopause thanks to chemo and tamoxifen — night sweats mean hugging my husband lasted seconds until I got sticky and warm. Vaginal dryness meant sex was painful. Estrogen is a natural lubricant and I didn’t have one.

I also lost my sex drive overnight. I felt so guilty about the impact of cancer on my marriage. I even told my husband to leave me and marry someone with two breasts and a libido.

When my cancer came back and I had to have the implant removed, it was incredibly difficult to look at my scar in the mirror. I’ve never looked under the neck. It took me three months to feel comfortable undressing in front of my husband.

Mentally I found the fear of repetition so heavy. Because I’ve cared for women who have died of breast cancer, I couldn’t share that knowledge. There was so much to fight against.

Learning to deal with ‘scanxiety’ every time I was called for a mammogram. Dealing with the fact that good news is an anti-climax because I had prepared for the worst. I get flashbacks every time I walk down the hospital corridor for a clinic appointment and an unbearable guilt when a friend dies, but I’m still alive.

Everyone asked me what they could do to help, and I had no idea. I had never had cancer. However, I found that the best thing people could do was stay in touch, without expecting a response.

Liz, with red lipstick on and looking into the camera

I am currently cancer free as far as I know (Picture: Dr Sukh/The Waiting Room)

I often didn’t have the energy during the chemo. My uncle, who lives far away, sent me a card every Friday telling me about the birds in his garden. Friends texted me to say hello, to let me know they were thinking of me.

Cancer was the only thing anyone wanted to talk to me about, but I was desperate to talk about normal things.

A neighbor brought food around and offered to walk the dog. My husband and I learned in my good weeks to cook in batches so that it would be easier for him to cope when I was sick.

I learned that I also had to take care of myself. I went for a 30 minute walk every day, even during chemotherapy, and I bought the Royal Marsden Cancer Cookbook, which had great ideas about what to eat when my taste was about to disappear.

My favorite recipe was salmon with soy sauce and soba noodles – I tasted the soy and it didn’t hurt my mouth, and the noodles were soft and didn’t hurt my gums.

Social media was also helpful – to an extent. I had so many tips and made so many friends who literally kept me going, but when someone died, I learned to take a break. The guilt that I feel that I’m alive and they aren’t, of the fear of reading about the end of someone’s life and thinking it could be yours can be really hard to deal with.

Liz O'Riordan

I had to reinvent myself and find a new way to help people (Picture: Dr Sukh/The Waiting Room)

Then I faced new challenges. The struggle to go back to work and not realize I was now legally disabled.

I was terrified to go back to work – could I? Ethically, should I do it? But I also knew that I could help my patients in so many ways with my insider knowledge. The challenge was how to do that without telling them I’d been in their shoes.

After a few hours I was exhausted. For the past year, all I’ve had to do is think about myself — with chemobrain and the menopausal fog, and now I had to make decisions that could affect someone’s life.

I ended up shadowing the breast ward of a local hospital for six months so they could check if I was able to become a breast surgeon again. It was terrible to hear someone hear that they had cancer. I had terrible flashbacks and realized I must have looked like this when I found out.


How should you check your breasts for lumps or irregularities?

Addie Mitchell, Clinical Nurse Practitioner at Breast Cancer Now, wants women to know that there is no right or wrong way to check your breasts.

“It’s about looking and feeling regularly so that any changes can be noticed quickly,” she said. ‘The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the more effective the treatment can be.

‘Whatever your age, it’s crucial to be aware of all the signs and symptoms of breast cancer – it’s not just a lump to look out for. Other changes may include a nipple being inverted or a change in the texture of the skin.

‘While most symptoms don’t indicate breast cancer, if you notice anything unusual, get it checked out by your doctor.

‘Anyone with questions can call the Breast Cancer Now nurses toll free on 0808 800 6000 or go to breastcancernow.org.uk.’

It was almost a relief when my cancer came back and the side effects of the surgery left me unable to operate.

I had to reinvent myself and find a new way to help people.

I started a blog and found that I could explain what breast cancer treatment was like, but it was also picked up by doctors and nurses who learned through me.

That led me to co-author a book to help patients answer the vast array of questions I had that I couldn’t find answers to—not just treatment, but diet, exercise, mental health, sex, and repetition.

I’ve just crowdfunded my memoir about my life as a female surgeon in a man’s world, with depression and cancer and moving on – which comes out next year – it’s another way to help people cope when the s**t is the fan.

Living with the chronic pain, the new gray hair, the scars and the damaged body image – the list goes on.

At the moment I am cancer free, as far as I know. I take a tablet called Anastrazole to reduce the risk of recurrence and exercise to reduce the risk as well.

Over time, I realized I don’t have it in my hands. My cancer is coming back or not. Nothing is 100% certain. So I’m trying to live my life normally now and put those worries out of my mind.

Life goes on. Being able to help others through it all is my silver lining.

More about Liz can be found here.


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