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“I didn’t want it to be a dirty secret" – how sharing a cancer and depression diagnosis taught a doctor to heal.

Written by: Adele Waters
Published on: 15 Apr 2024
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Former breast surgeon Liz O’Riordan tells Adele Waters how having cancer three times and serious depression has led her to help people in a different way.

Liz O’Riordan saw her life turn upside down in 2015. After years of working hard as a surgical trainee and being a “single cat lady”, she finally landed a consultancy post in Ipswich and met and fell in love with a fellow-doctor, now husband.  Finally life was falling into place.

But that would all change one day as she got out of the shower and noticed a lump in her cleavage. 

An ultrasound would soon confirm her suspicions. “I didn't need to wait for the results. As my surgeon was drawing up the biopsy needle he said ‘who do you want to treat you?’ because we both knew.

"At 40, I was young, it was a big tumour, I'd need chemo, I'd need a mastectomy. I was fit – a triathlete – with no family history and I had a good idea what my 10 year survival might be. All these things are running through my head - you can't undo that knowledge.”

So began an unwelcome new chapter in her life that would take her through multiple surgeries, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, as well as breast reconstruction, hormone therapy, and on to lifetime maintenance treatment, following a second recurrence last year. 

“The day I was diagnosed I announced it on social media because I knew I would be recognised walking around the hospital with a bald head and I didn’t want it to be a dirty secret. It was the best thing I did – patients told me how to cope with chemo, what toothpaste to use, what to eat, what to drink, they really helped.”

She began a blog and became known as “the breast surgeon with breast cancer” but in 2018 that, too, would change. Following surgery and radiotherapy to her chest wall, she lost the power in her left arm and I could no longer operate. 

“Today, I”m learning to live with the side effects and the collateral damage of my current treatment, which will hopefully stop it coming back a fourth time. But that's hard. I'm cancer-free but my risk of it coming back is higher now. I have my dark days.”

Liz O'Riordan

O’Riordan’s honesty about her cancer journey is also matched by her openness about her episodes of serious depression.

“I had suicidal depression twice as a consultant surgeon but I was too scared to talk about it. What if my colleagues found out?  What if my patients found out?”

Now she recognises how her depression linked directly to her work. “I had underestimated how hard it was to tell 10 women a day they have cancer, that it had come back, that they needed chemo or more surgery, and absorbing all that emotion.  

“People would cry, scream, shout, punch. As a doctor, you're the person breaking their world and somehow you have to put them back together. And then do it again and again and again. 

“Nobody talks about it. You never see consultants cry about the patients they're going to operate on because we're all pretending to be superhuman.  We're not taught how to deal with all that emotion and we don't have the support mechanisms in place.

“Today I would advise consultants to let their juniors in. Admit you went to bed crying over this case or you’re worried about that complaint.”

Today, aged 49, she has become an author, motivational speaker and podcaster, who regularly shares advice on how to manage a breast cancer journey with women all over the world.

She is also in the middle of writing a health advice book – her third.  Managing her energy levels is now a daily task. “When you help people, everyone wants you to help them. I could say yes to everything but now I have to think about myself, when I’ll walk the dog, swim, go to the gym or knit –  it's important to find balance.

“I was a pessimistic introvert before I got cancer,” she says. “But I’ve turned into a woman who regularly talks in front of crowds.

“I love that I can help far more people this way. I can reach a million people with a tweet that will explain something compared to the 100 women I might have treated.

“I have seen the cancer journey from both sides so I can help people in different ways, filling in the information gaps.  I get incredible messages every day from people saying thank you.”

 

My advice to surgeons on dealing with their emotions

Drop your work mask - medicine can be emotional work and it's OK to be human

Take five minutes to breathe and gather your thoughts after challenging conversations

Acknowledge the challenge of dealing with emotional situations

Debrief - arrange a time for the team to discuss those patients who made you cry

 

Liz's book 'Under the Knife: Life Lessons from the Operating Theatre' is published by Unbound.