Cancer survivor surgeon Liz is a woman of the year

Liz O'Riordan pictured in November just before her last chemotherapy session - picture by Alex Kilbee, of Muse Portraits
Liz O'Riordan pictured in November just before her last chemotherapy session - picture by Alex Kilbee, of Muse Portraits

An inspirational breast surgeon who beat breast cancer and created an online blog about her unique journey to help others has been named as a ‘Woman of the Year’.

Liz O’Riordan, of Elmswell, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer last July and, as a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon at Ipswich Hospital, thought she knew what having the disease would be like.

Liz O'Riordan pictured earlier this summer - picture by Alex Kilbee, of Muse Portraits.

Liz O'Riordan pictured earlier this summer - picture by Alex Kilbee, of Muse Portraits.

“But I was wrong,” the 41-year-old admits. “I had no idea what it was really like. I wanted to share my personal experiences to help doctors understand what their patients go through, and to gently guide patients through the various treatments.”

So she started a blog to chronicle her journey of being both a doctor and patient in her own speciality - from chemotherapy to a mastectomy, reconstruction and hormonal manipulation.

In recognition of the impact she has made, Liz will join more than 400 women from all walks of life at the Women of the Year Lunch as a ‘2016 Woman of Achievement’ in London on October 17.

Liz said she was ‘shell-shocked’ to be invited and hopes to continue to use her blog to improve patient care.

Liz O'Riordan at her first park run with her husband Dermot in August 2015 ANL-160824-130244001

Liz O'Riordan at her first park run with her husband Dermot in August 2015 ANL-160824-130244001

It is surely one of the high points of a saga which Liz never thought she would have to endure. Through her profession, she knew what to expect for the most part but there were some surprises.

She didn’t realise that you lost all of your body hair through treatment or how emotional having radiotherapy could be - lying topless in a room with her arms above her head while male and female technicians set up the machine made her feel ‘vulnerable and exposed’.

“I thought I should know how to handle all the side effects of chemotherapy because I’m a doctor, and felt embarrassed admitting I didn’t know what to do at times. I had to learn to let other doctors look after me, and not to treat myself.”

Liz recalls two ‘really difficult’ moments during treatment - both relating to her job. The first was when she was diagnosed and the second was after her mastectomy when she found the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

Liz pictured after she finished the sprint tri, in September 2015, after her third cycle of chemo ANL-160824-130257001

Liz pictured after she finished the sprint tri, in September 2015, after her third cycle of chemo ANL-160824-130257001

She said: “At both these times, I knew too much. I didn’t need to ‘google’ breast cancer, as I had all the information, good and bad, already in my head. There was no gentle learning curve. And I had all the information, but my family knew nothing. It was up to me to decide how much to share.”

Liz also realised how difficult it is to decide whether to have a breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.

“Normally patients get a couple of weeks to decide, and I had the ‘luxury’ of five months’ of chemotherapy.

“It is very hard to focus on what your breast means to you, with regards to body image, sexuality etc, when it has cancer.

“Because all you can think about is getting rid of the cancer, and not whether having a nipple will be important to you in five or 10 years’ time. I wasn’t too bothered about losing my hair, and didn’t bother with a wig. I didn’t want to hide away and feel ashamed that I had lost my hair.

“But I was very upset when I lost my eyelashes. It was the only feminine ritual I had left to make me feel pretty, once my hair and eyebrows had gone.”

A triathlete and cyclist, Liz is an avid campaigner for the importance of exercise during treatment.

“There is lots of evidence to show that regular activity reduces the risk of getting breast cancer and the risk of recurrence, but I didn’t realise that exercise also reduces the symptoms of chemotherapy,” she said.

She walked for half an hour every morning with her neighbour, whatever the weather. Some days Liz could only walk to the end of the road and back - stopping every two minutes to catch her breath - but it still gave her a sense of achievement.

She joined a gym and did gentle weight training to keep her strong. The week before she started chemo, she cycled 100 miles to Thorpeness and back with her cycling club, The West Suffolk Wheelers.

On her good weeks she did park runs with her husband Dermot and cycled to some chemo sessions.

Liz even took on the West Suffolk Wheelers’ sprint distance triathlon mid-way through her chemo.

“I had to promise them that I would do it very, very slowly and that if I felt unwell, I would stop. It was a 300m pool swim, an 18km bike ride and a 5km run.

“The sense of achievement I had when I crossed the finish line was amazing. Both my husband and I were crying. No-one was staring at my bald head, and the crowds were cheering me on.”

On exercising during treatment, she explains: “Patients are often told to ask their doctor whether it is safe to exercise. But I’m a doctor and I’ve never had any training in how much exercise is safe during cancer treatment. I think if you are sensible and listen to your body, you can do a lot more than you think you can.”

She has raised more than £2,750 for cancer charities through cycling and walking challenges.

Liz had five months’ of chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy and implant reconstruction and then an operation to remove lymph nodes in her armpit as the cancer had spread. This was followed by three weeks of radiotherapy. All of her treatment was at West Suffolk Hospital. She has just had her yearly mammogram and been given the all clear but will continue to take medication.

In the next month or two, Liz hopes to return to work.

“I’m a little apprehensive about this, and am sure there will be challenges to come, although I know I will be well supported at Ipswich Hospital.”

Her blog attracted praise from doctors and patients and she has been asked to write guest blogs for cancer networks in America and New Zealand. Her blogs have been used in medical school lectures in South Africa.

Asked what she ultimately learnt from her experience, Liz said: “One of the best days of my life was the day I told Twitter I had breast cancer. I suddenly found friends who were going through the same treatment and formed my own amazing online support network. You’re not alone.”

One of the best things she did was to have a photo shoot at the end of chemo. Liz said: “Alex Kilbee, of Muse Portraits, made me feel beautiful. I highly recommend the experience to anyone.”

The Royal Marsden Cancer Cookbook was also ‘life-changing’ with recipes to suit a variety of needs.

Liz will talk at the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust’s annual members’ meeting on September 13, which is themed around living through cancer. It is at The Apex from 5.45 to 7.30pm and open to all. To book, email foundationtrust@wsh.nhs.uk or call 01284 713224 by September 5.

To read Liz’s blog, visit www.liz.oriordan.co.uk