A Breast Cancer Doctor Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
- In 2015 at age 40, breast cancer surgeon Dr. Liz O’Riordan was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and began a blog about treatment effects.
- Her cancer came back a second time, and as part of treatment – in order for it to be effective – she had her ovaries removed.
- The doctor shares that, during chemo, hair loss is common, and many people find that things taste differently. She encourages people diagnosed with cancer to remain active and move their bodies to the degree possible.
“As a breast cancer surgeon, I would speak to my patients about chemotherapy, to tell them that it’s a given to try to stop cancer coming back, or sometimes to shrink a tumor before surgery. That there are always side effects. That hair loss is virtually a given,” she writes.
Read More“Through [my blogging] I found an incredible support network of other women with breast cancer who shared with me their chemo survival tips.”
Dr. O’Riordan writes how she started blogging about her experience as a doctor-turned patient. “Through [my blogging] I found an incredible support network of other women with breast cancer who shared with me their chemo survival tips. These angels told me things you don’t get in medical textbooks, such as the fact that water will taste disgusting and what to wear during treatment when one minute you can be shivering with cold and the next you can be sweating in the grip of a chemo-induced hot flush.”
Dr. O’Riordan also speaks around the world about how to improve the quality of patient care. In 2018, she co-authored a book called The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer: How to Feel Empowered and Take Control.
Dr. O’Riordan’s Cancer Journey
Dr. O’Riordan writes in The Daily Mail, in an earlier essay, that, at 40, she “received the devastating news that I had breast cancer myself.” The doctor says she had had cysts in the past, so when she noticed a new lump on her left breast, she wasn’t too concerned. She decided to check it anyway.
Weeks later, she writes how, “a mammogram, ultrasound scan and subsequent biopsy confirmed I had a large tumor. I knew what was to come – chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy and radiotherapy,” writes Dr. O’Riordan. She also says her tumor was “estrogen-sensitive, so I also needed the hormone-blocking medication tamoxifen, which triggered instant menopause.”
Last summer, remembering her cancer experiences, she wrote on Twitter, “6 years ago today I had my first chemotherapy infusion of Docetaxel for #breastcancer. Although I was a breast cancer surgeon, I was scared and frightened about what the future held. Now I can’t remember what it was like it quite believe I went through it. Time is a great healer.”
6 years ago today I had my first chemotherapy infusion of Docetaxel for #breastcancer. Although I was a breast cancer surgeon, I was scared and frightened about what the future held. Now I can’t remember what it was like it quite believe I went through it. Time is a great healer pic.twitter.com/yxj8fjjnQO
— Dr Liz O'Riordan (@Liz_ORiordan) August 4, 2021
In May 2018, she had a recurrence of her breast cancer. She writes of this event, “my cancer came back in the scar tissue where my left breast had been. After an operation to remove it and more radiotherapy, I needed to take a different kind of hormone-blocking medication as tamoxifen hadn’t worked.”
In order for the treatment of the new drug to be effective, Dr. O’Riordan needed to halt her body’s production of estrogen. This meant she needed to have her ovaries removed. “I’m slowly learning to accept the new me,” she wrote in a blog post.
On Hair Loss During Chemo
Like many people, Dr. O’Riordan experienced hair loss as a result of chemotherapy. There some new developments, like cooling caps, which can mitigate the effects of chemotherapy-induced hair loss. Dr. Renata Urban, a Gynecologic Oncologist at the University of Washington, says in an earlier interview, “In regards to the risk of hair loss with Paclitaxel, there is often complete hair loss some. Patients may not lose all of their hair.”
“I think one thing that’s important to know is that if a patient does not lose their hair, it does not mean that the chemotherapy is not effective,” says Dr. Urban. “Some patients may lose all of their hair, and some patients may not.”
Dr. Urban speaks about “cold therapy” and “cooling caps.” She says, “The mechanism of this is that with the cold it can cause vasoconstriction or narrowing of the blood vessels bringing blood to the scalp.”
On Other, Lesser-Known Chemo Effects
Dr. O’Riordan writes about some lesser-known effects of chemotherapy. For instance, she notes that “your teeth and gums become so sore and sensitive that only the softest baby toothbrush will be bearable. And so much more.”
She also says how, during chemo, things taste funny, or even “nasty.” Dr. O’Riordan writes, “the whole body is affected [by chemo drugs], so there’s collateral damage of healthy cells that causes a wide range of side effects. Because chemo is hard-going, treatment is given in cycles. Most drugs are given via a drip over several hours, but some cancers mean you have to have chemotherapy over several days in hospital.”
She says that one of the first things many people notice “is a funny taste in the mouth – for me it was either metallic or chalky.” She says that chemo alters your enjoyment of food. “Even tea and water taste awful,” she writes. “I found many salty things became unbearable, but my sense of taste recovered between cycles, and during this window wine and chocolate tasted OK.”
Dr. O’Riordan emphasizes the importance of exercise during cancer, even when you don’t feel like it. “The best thing you can do to help, even though it’s the last thing you’ll want to do, is exercise,” she writes. “Forcing yourself to get out of the house and walk for 30 minutes, maybe listening to a podcast or audiobook, will help.”