I'm a breast cancer surgeon and thought I knew it all until my diagnosis – 10 things even I didn't know | The Sun

A BREAST cancer surgeon for three years, Dr Liz O'Riordan thought there was nothing about the disease she didn’t know.

But she was shocked to discover what it’s really like for her hundreds of patients after getting a diagnosis herself.

The 49-year-old, who lives in Suffolk with her husband, Dermot, will never be able to have children, lost her job, and fears every day the disease will return.

The author of Under The Knife, tells The Sun: “I thought I was an expert in breast cancer. 

“I've got a postgraduate degree in it, I spent my life training to treat it, and I realised how little I knew about what my patients actually go through.”

Dr Liz admits she “never checked her breasts” because she thought it would never happen to her – she was fit, healthy and young.

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But in 2015, aged 40, she spotted a lump while standing in front of the mirror.

She says: “It was only my mum who said, ‘Look, go and get checked out just in case’ – and it turned out to be a stage three breast cancer.”

Normally women are “drip-fed” information about their prognosis, but with her background, Dr Liz says she knew instantly what her ultrasound results meant. 

She says: “I knew in that split second that I needed chemotherapy because the cancer was big, I knew I needed a mastectomy, and I had a good idea what my ten-year survival might be, all in a flash. 

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“Then I had to decide how much of that information to share with my husband and my parents. Does my mum want me to know I might not be here in ten years?”

When Dr Liz told her mum – who passed away in 2022 – the severity of her disease, she recalls: “I remember her telling me that I wasn't upset. It was like I was talking about a patient, not myself.

“I'd gone into denial and the only way I could cope with the knowledge in my head was to pretend it was happening to someone else.”

Decade long journey

Dr Liz started chemotherapy, which would last for five months, had a mastectomy [breast removal] and breast reconstruction.

But in the years following she needed more treatment as the cancer returned.

She had her ovaries removed so that she could be put on a hormone blocker.

“The side effects of all the radiotherapy treatment meant that my left arm didn't work properly and I could no longer operate," Dr Liz said.

“As well as losing my career, my femininity and my fertility, I then lost my job in 2019."

Scrambling for her sense of identity without her job, Dr Liz became an educator on breast cancer on social media – where she has a combined following of 100K.

Dr Liz co-wrote the book The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer after realising how many questions her patients – and now herself – had.

She says: “As a doctor, I would have ten minutes to tell someone they had breast cancer and go through all the treatments. 

“You have to stay clinical when you are telling ten women a day they've got cancer."

The day before the book launch in July of this year, Dr Liz found another nodule on her chest wall and knew it was a resurgence of the disease.

She had surgery to remove the nodule, and has injections of hormones into the buttocks with mild chemotherapy “for life, just to try and stop it coming back”.

Recalling her 20s and 30s, Dr Liz says: “I think most of us think we're invincible, that we're never gonna get sick. 

“It’s great that we live carefree, but I now know how important it is to get young women to check their breasts because we don't have breast screening, and actually to say alcohol does cause cancer.

“We need to raise awareness that the way you live in your 20s and 30s could have an impact on your life in the future.

“And globally, more and more young people are getting cancer.

“I think it showed me an inner strength that I never knew I had, you have no choice but to carry on.”

'What I never knew about breast cancer, as a doctor'


Dr Liz said: "What I didn't realise I’d get so angry about was the pinkwashing.

"October is ‘pink month’ and everyone pushes the sale of pink products to raise awareness of breast cancer.

"But when you've lost your hair, you don't need pink GHD hair straighteners or a pink bra, and you realise how little money actually goes through breast cancer research when people buy these products."


Dr Liz said: "I knew you lost your sense of taste, but I had no idea how hard it is when everything tastes disgusting, how horrible it is when a cup of tea tastes like dishwater and chocolate tastes horrible.

"You're just living off bland food because your mouth is so sore – a common side effect of chemotherapy."


Dr Liz said: "I didn't realise you lost all your body hair with chemo, not just that on your head.

"You wake up one morning and your leg hair disappears and you end up with a free Brazilian overnight."


"I never talked with patients about how their sex life would be affected, because I didn’t realise how big a deal it was," Dr Liz said.

"When the chemotherapy switches off your ovaries, it switches off your sex drive. I didn’t let my husband see me naked for a couple of months because I hated my scars [from the mastectomy]."


Dr Liz said: "It was almost a year after my diagnosis when the mental health problems of cancer kicked in.

"You wake up everyday thinking, ‘Is this the day it will come back?’

"The anxiety you feel as you walk into the breast unit for your yearly mammogram – we call it ‘scanxiety’ – waiting for the results."


Dr Liz said: "Chemotherapy stops your ovaries from working, which sends you into early menopause if you’re under the natural age [around 45].

"I remember waking up in bed one night and thought I’d wet myself, as a trickle of water ran down my inner thigh.

"That was my first night sweat and I would have them every hour on the hour for the next two or three years."


"I wasn't sure whether I'd wanted children," Dr Liz said.

"But the minute I was told I couldn't have them, I knew I really wanted them. I still grieve when parents put pictures of their children on Facebook on World Book Day."


Dr Liz said: "A cancer diagnosis changes how your family and your friends talk to you.

"Some can't bear the thought of you having cancer so they don't get in touch, they don't know what to say. Whereas people came out of the woodwork that I hadn't seen since I was in school."


"You don't know what your breasts mean to you until you're faced with losing one," Dr Liz said.

"I felt guilty that vanity was a reason to have a breast reconstruction… Now I've been flat for a couple of years, I realise that doesn't define me, but time is a great healer."


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Dr Liz said: "You may think, ‘Oh, it's October I'll check my breasts but I won't do it for the rest of the year’.

"I now know how important it is to get young women to check their breasts."

What reduces breast cancer risk?

Dr Liz says: "We know there are three things that can reduce the risk of you getting breast cancer, and can also help with all the side effects."


"Regular exercise – both aerobic exercise and resistance-based, which can be done at home – can reduce the risk of you getting it by up to 50 per cent.

"It helps with all the side effects of treatment even from the day you're diagnosed. It helps you recover quicker and helps with all the side effects of chemotherapy, and it can reduce the risk of it coming back by up to 40 per cent."


"Eating a healthy diet full of a rainbow of fruits and veg can again reduce the risk of you getting breast cancer, and reduce the risk of it coming back. You don’t need a fad diet.

"We know that if you drink a lot of alcohol, it can increase the risk of breast cancer – that's been proven. The guidelines recommend if you've had breast cancer, you shouldn't drink more than five units a week. "


"You should try and maintain a healthy weight for your height because we do know that obesity increases the risk of getting breast cancer and can increase the risk of it coming back. That's really hard when treatment makes you menopausal and slows your metabolism down."

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