Consultant breast surgeon Liz O’Riordan was used to treating women with breast cancer, but her own diagnosis in 2015 came as a shock.
I’ve had lumpy breasts for years. The first time I found a lump I was terrified it was cancer. I spent the night crying, convinced I’d be dead in two years. My mum said I’d be fine and, luckily, I was. An ultrasound just showed cysts.
I’m now a consultant breast surgeon, and spend my days treating scared, anxious women. My waiting room is full of fear. Most women are fine, and I can send them on their way with a smile.
I found another lump in 2014. I was almost certain it was another cyst cluster, but the worry was always there, at the back of my mind. Everyone told me it would be fine.
I know that people mean well, but I hate this phrase. I’ve said it to patients before, and have had to eat my words when a scan shows something unexpected, which is a horrible conversation to have. It’s making a promise I can’t keep. How can friends and family promise things will be fine?
How can they know for certain? This time I had a mammogram. My first. And it was OK – a tight squeeze for a few seconds. The scan showed cysts. Everything was fine.
In March 2015 I noticed a lump in the other breast, and an ultrasound showed another cluster of cysts. I started to feel like I was wasting everyone’s time. I’d been back twice in six months.
In June 2015 I’d noticed a new lumpy area in the same side as March, and I was sure it was just cysts again. I finally mentioned it to my mum, and agreed to get it checked. I had another mammogram, and was quite blasé about having an ultrasound.
Reassuringly, the mammogram was normal. Next came the ultrasound.
Before the doctor did it, she asked me if I wanted to see. I said yes, because everything was going to be fine. We both looked, and it wasn’t fine.
It was an obvious cancer. And it was big.
Instantly the following thoughts went through my head: I need a biopsy – I tell patients it doesn’t hurt, but does it? Has it spread? I’ll need a mastectomy. I’ll need chemotherapy. I have a clinic and an operating list tomorrow – how the hell am I going to cope?
No learning curve for me. I knew too much. I knew the answers to all those questions and all the possible outcomes.
And I couldn’t share that information with anyone. I didn’t want to frighten them – it was bad enough knowing myself.
It wasn’t really happening. It couldn’t be happening.
Suddenly I knew my life would never be the same again.
Follow Liz through her treatment and beyond on her blog.
Content created January 2016; next planned review 2018