Breast surgeon and cancer patient Dr Liz O’Riordan comes to HYMS

Liz O’Riordan is a Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon. In 2015, she was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Since her diagnosis, Liz has maintained an award-winning blog, where she chronicles her experience of dealing with cancer and being a patient and a doctor in her own speciality. Liz is an inspiring speaker and, lucky for us, she is coming to HYMS! She will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming 4th HYMS National Undergraduate Surgical Conference (Saturday 28th of January at the Medical Education Centre, Hull Royal Infirmary). We caught up with Liz before she visits us – because we’re just that excited to meet her!

Liz, thank you for talking to us. Would you mind tell us a bit about your diagnosis and treatment?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015 at the age of 40. I just thought it was another breast cyst. It was a large cancer and so I had chemotherapy first to try and shrink it. After chemotherapy, I had a mastectomy and implant reconstruction and an axillary node clearance followed by radiotherapy. I’m now on 10 years of hormonal maintenance therapy (Tamoxifen and Zoladex injections).

You have a blog where you chronicle your experiences of dealing with cancer. Could you explain why you do this?

When I was first diagnosed, I was in denial. It couldn’t be happening to me. Writing my thoughts down helped me deal with it. I made the decision to come out on Twitter and tell the world, and realised that I could do a lot of good by blogging about breast cancer using my surgical knowledge, to help doctors and patients. I had no idea just how big the impact of my blog was. It’s introduced me to so many amazing people and opportunities, and I hope I can carry on using my blog to educate people.

How did being a breast surgeon affect your experience of dealing with breast cancer?

The problem for me was that I knew EVERYTHING. My husband knew a little (because he’s a general surgeon), and my family knew nothing. I knew all the worst-case scenarios and outcomes, and you can’t suddenly pretend that you don’t know what the future might hold. It was also very hard to choose a surgeon when I knew everyone in my field, and to let someone do to me what I’ve spent years becoming an expert in.

Is there anything you would do differently now as a surgeon having been a patient

Yes, lots. As a trainee, I would completely change my priorities when it came to training, and as a surgeon, I will change how I communicate with patients. To find out more, you’ll have to come and listen to my talk!

How is your health currently, and what are your hopes for the future?

I had the all clear in July last year, so I’m currently NED (No Evidence of Disease). I’m all too aware that the breast cancer might come back in the future, so I’m bringing forward all my crazy goals and living life to the fullest. Something I wish I had started doing years ago. I’ve been a passionate promoter of exercise during cancer treatment, and am now training for a half-Ironman triathlon. I don’t know what the future holds with regards to work, and whether I’ll be able to cope with dealing with breast cancer patients having been a patient myself. Only time will tell.

What can we expect from your talk at the 4th HYMS National Undergraduate Surgical Conference?

I’m going to take you on my journey from medical school through surgical training to becoming a consultant and finally becoming a patient, and I’m going to share with you the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I’m going to focus on communication and breaking bad news – the good, the bad and the ugly! I’m going to tell you what it’s like to have every test and treatment I prescribe on a daily basis, and what I wish I’d known as a trainee that I know now. I’m going to help you look after patients who also are doctors.

I’m also going to talk about work-life balance. It took me 20 years of training and one year of breast cancer treatment to see the importance of this. Surgery is an amazing career, but you need a life outside it to keep you sane. But most importantly, I hope I’m going to remind you that patients are people too.

I would like to say that for some of you, hearing me talk about my own breast cancer treatment might be a bit upsetting, especially if you have close friends or family who have gone or are going through something similar, and I won’t mind at all if you suddenly need to ‘go to the toilet’ during my talk. I still make my husband cry when he hears me talk about my experiences, so don’t feel embarrassed if you get a bit of grit in your eye…

What are you most looking forward to doing in Hull (aside from meeting us, obviously)?

I get into Hull at 11pm on the Friday night, so I might get a glimpse of the nightlife to remind me of my student days in Cardiff, singing all the way home after a night out in a club called The Philharmonic. I swear on a Thursday night you would see all the hospital staff in South Wales, from Year 1 students to consultants strutting their stuff on the dance floor!

My husband reminded me that Hull is the UK City of Culture, so I’m going to spend the train ride up looking at the Hull website and planning what to see – I’m open to suggestions!

You can follow Liz on twitter @Liz_ORiordan  …why not tweet her your suggestions for a fun day/night out in Hull!

To buy a ticket to the 4th HYMS National Undergraduate Surgical Conference on Saturday the 28th of January 2017, please click here. There are some exceptional speakers, including Liz, and a variety of workshops on offer. See flyer for more information.

Dr Liz O’Riordan was interviewed by Alexandra Abel.