I am a former breast surgeon who had breast cancer twice

Courtesy of Liz O’Riordan

  • Liz O’Riordan is a UK-based former breast surgeon.
  • In 2015, at the age of 40, he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.
  • This is the story of O’Riordan, told to Molly Lipson.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Liz O’Riordanwho received two cancer diagnoses at the age of 40. It has been edited for length and clarity.

As a consultant breast surgeon in the UK, I thought I knew everything there was to know about breast cancer. Then, in July 2015, at the age of 40, I myself was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

As soon as the radiologist put the probe on my breast, I looked at the screen and saw cancer. I didn’t have to wait for the biopsy or the results or to find out – I knew what it was and I knew it was big. Because I was young, I knew I would need chemo, maybe a mastectomy. I even had a good idea of ​​my chances of being alive in 10 years.

I started treatment right away

At that moment, it was as if something had turned off inside me. Because I treated men and women who died of breast cancer, it was too much to handle. It was like it was happening to someone else. Two weeks later, I started chemo. I quickly realized that despite being prescribed chemo to so many patients, I had no idea what it actually felt like. I had no idea how sick it could make you or how to deal with brain fog, instant menopause, severe constipation, and loss of my sense of taste.

After five months of chemotherapy, my cancer seemed to have completely melted away, according to my scans. I went to get the results of this operation on December 23rd. In the waiting room, I was surrounded by couples who were probably about to learn that one of them had breast cancer a few days before Christmas. I was so relieved not to be in this position, I really thought it was all over. However, it turned out that there were over 5 inches of cancer left in my breasts and lymph nodes. He had not diminished.

I knew what that meant. My chances of survival had suddenly plummeted, that meant more surgery and more radiation. I couldn’t process it. But of course I had to. So, I had more treatment, and it was really, really hard, especially going through menopause at 40.

Returning to work with cancer patients has been difficult

It was also very difficult to return to work, having had cancer myself. I didn’t want to do operations because I suffered from chronic pain and I knew how much pain I could inflict on my patients. I also found it difficult because when I told someone they had cancer, I wanted to tell them: “yes, it’s shit! I know it’s shit, I get it! But as a surgeon, I couldn’t really do that because we’re supposed to be factual and, at least, positive.

Two and a half years after my first operation, in 2018, I found a nodule of scar tissue under my arm. An ultrasound showed a recurrence of less than an inch of cancer on my chest wall. I had to undergo a mastectomy, and I was confronted with new fears: how am I going to cope with having a flat chest? I know it’s pointless, but you don’t consider what your boobs mean to you until you lose them. Then I had to face another problem: the pain I was experiencing in that area caused me to lose mobility in my left arm and, therefore, I could no longer operate. I was forced into retirement and didn’t know what to do next, but I realized that people diagnosed with breast cancer were turning to the internet for answers to questions their doctors didn’t have. time to ask them.

The problem is that anyone can put whatever they want online without needing to prove their opinion. That’s why I started blogging and posting my own videos – as a surgeon I hope to be a voice of reason and try to help people as someone who has been on both sides of the operating table. I used to stick to talking and posting about breast cancer, but I felt as a doctor I wanted to help a wider audience. I was getting a lot of blood boiling messages, mostly around what I call “nutribollocks”, influencers with millions of followers who say mushrooms or kiwis cure cancer. It’s nonsense, but because they call themselves nutritionists or experts, people believe them.

As a real expert, it only makes sense for me to try to dispel these myths and share some actually useful information.

Before I got cancer, I was a very boring 40-year-old because I just ate, slept, and worked. Getting cancer was a wake-up call that life is not about work. Now I volunteer at a hedgehog shelter, walk dogs, garden. It’s a shame that it took cancer to make me a more balanced person, but I hope to continue helping people by talking about my experience and sharing my knowledge for years to come.

Liz’s new book is available for pre-order here. The second series of his “Don’t Ignore The Elephant” podcast was released in March.

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