How One Breast Surgeon Fought Off Breast Cancer

By Alasdair English

Back in 2015, when Doctor Liz O’Riordan was diagnosed with cancer she found it “all-consuming” and found exercise a great way “of just being Liz”. Feeling anxious, and scared the breast surgeon went along to her local Park Run, she had just had therapy meaning she had lost her hair. After timidly making her way to the start line she found “this amazing guy who welcomed me to the cuddle club”, this person had metastatic sarcoma, which is where cancerous cells get into the bloodstream and travel to other areas of the body.

Image Credit: Paul Strobel,
Image Credit: Paul Strobel,

This kind man gave Liz a hug and said “Welcome, I’ll see you next week”. Starting the 5k Park Run for the first time after treatment Liz admitted “I was really slow and really sweaty” but pointed out that it was not the competition of getting around as quickly as possible but, in fact, she said she felt that “I achieved something, I’ve walked 5k, and I feel just amazing”. She felt “wonderful” as she completed her first 5k.

Over the last few years, Liz O’Riordan has been taking part in the ‘5k your way’, which is a project put together by Macmillan support, helping cancer patients dealing with a battle with cancer. It helps people to live with and beyond cancer to walk, jog, run, cheer on, or volunteer at a local ‘5k your way’ event which is held on the last Saturday of each month. The community-based initiative also helps those affected by cancer, for example, family members, friends, carers, and healthcare professionals. Liz said it’s a free experience and “you can walk, you can crawl, you can do it as slowly as you like, no one minds and you can have tea and cake afterward.”

The ‘5k your way’ scheme has not just got the benefits of helping people deal with their cancer, it can become a social occasion as well, Liz said “You just get to chat to other people and forget what is going on with your life”

Being a consultant breast surgeon having been diagnosed with cancer, Liz found it really hard to live with cancer, especially before the ‘5k your way’ initiative. She said, “I never thought I’d get breast cancer, I never checked my breasts”. Living with breast cancer, Liz said it was also “really hard living with the fear of it coming back, what can I do to stop it coming back?” Having lost her job, Liz found it incredibly hard to know who she was saying “I needed something to get my identity back and that was partly done through exercise”.

Liz O’Riordan has written books and hosts a podcast helping people dealing with cancer. She said, “When I was diagnosed I got twenty books written by breast cancer patients, which was crazy because I was a breast cancer surgeon”. Liz soon realised being a patient and being a surgeon were two completely separate experiences, she said “There was so little I knew about being a patient, I had so many questions.

Liz’s book, The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer, has found a way to combine being a surgeon and a patient and to demystify the topic of having cancer and answering all the questions someone may have, she said it “was a way of answering all of those (questions)”. The breast surgeon said the book has also helped people to understand “not only what the treatment is but how you cope, how you tell your family, how you get your relationships back, how you deal with the mental side effects.” Liz still gets people coming up to her, having read the book saying they don’t feel scared of getting cancer anymore.

Liz has said she spent a lot of time over lockdown talking about topics other people have not touched like “your sex life after cancer or the fear of it coming back or dying” Liz said this was the reason she started her podcast ‘Don’t Ignore the Elephant’, which, subsequently, talks about the elephants in the room around getting and living with cancer. Liz said she wants to help people with the podcast to let them know “they’re not alone and to hopefully give them tips to help when it happens to them”.