‘The worst thing anyone has ever said to me? Your cancer has come back,’ by The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer author, Dr Liz O’Riordan


Dr Liz O'Riordan PHOTO: RUSSELL SACH - Credit: Archant

Dr Liz O'Riordan is a consultant breast surgeon at Ipswich Hospital who was diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 2015 with a local recurrence in 2018. Following her TEDx talk 'Jar of Joy', she now speaks all over the world about her experiences as a doctor and a patient. She has co-authored two books and has an award-winning blog. Outside of work she is a triathlete and an avid baker. She spoke to Gina Long, MBE

What is your connection to East Anglia?

I moved from Cardiff to East Anglia in 2006 to finish my surgical training. After two years working in Cambridge and then Bury St Edmunds, I fell in love with my boss and the rest is history.

What is your East Anglian Heaven ie what do you love most about East Anglia?

The Norfolk coast – it's where we got married. My husband took me there for our first weekend away together and we keep going back. I love the deserted beaches in winter, the fantastic Coasthopper bus service that lets us on with our muddy dog, and the birdlife.

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What is your East Anglian Hell ie what you hate most about living here?

The A14. Suffolk isn't an easy part of the world to get to, and the lorries on the roads don't help.

What's your favourite East Anglian restaurant?

There are so many to choose from, but it has to be Morston Hall in Morston, run by Galton Blackiston. I might be biased because we had our wedding reception there, but the food is amazing, and you're made to feel so welcome. And after an evening of fabulous food, their breakfast marmalade is second to none!

What's your favourite way to spend an East Anglian evening?

In the summer it's a ride out to a local pub on our tandem. When the nights draw in, it's got to be Abbeygate cinema in Bury St Edmunds. I love snuggling up on one of the sofas with a hot chocolate and a freshly baked cookie.

What's your favourite East Anglian landmark?

That's easy – the windmill at Cley. It's a beautiful building, and it's special to me because I got married there. One day I hope to go back and stay in the room at the very top.

What's the best thing in East Anglia every year?

The wader spectacular on the mudflats. At the end of the breeding season, 50-60,000 wader birds congregate on the wash. On the highest tide of the month in August, the wash is completely covered and you get to see all the birds fly off in one massive flock. We were lucky to see it last year with The Bird ID Company. It was a sight I'll never forget.

What your specialist Mastermind subject?

Sadly, it's breast cancer. As a consultant breast surgeon who's had breast cancer twice, I've got expert knowledge from both sides of the table.

What is always in your fridge?

Sourdough starter and every chutney, preserve and condiment you could think of.

What's your simple philosophy of life?

Since getting cancer, my focus has changed. Life used to be all about work and helping other people. Now I'm slowly learning that I need to help myself as well. I would tell my younger self that anything is possible, and if people don't laugh at your goals, they're not big enough.

What's your favourite film?

I was never really into films, but my husband Dermot introduced me to the 'Wittertainment' podcast by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode. It's made me watch films I'd have previously ignored. They gave me a list of 'feel-good' films to watch during chemo and my favourite, that I know word-for-word and could watch on repeat forever, is 'Pitch Perfect'.

What was your first job?

Putting plastic tags on socks in a local factory in the Midlands where I grew up.

What is your most treasured possession?

My engagement ring, which my husband designed. He gave it to me when I was covered in mud during a dog walk in Dartmoor, in the middle of a stone circle called 'Kiss in the Ring'.

Who do you admire most?

Ordinary people doing amazing things who have no idea what an impact they are having on the people whose lives they touch.

What is your biggest indulgence?

Wool and quilting fabric. If my husband only knew how big my stash really is…

What do you like about yourself most?

The strength of character that I never knew I had which has enabled me to reach out and help doctors and patients learn how to help anyone with cancer.

What's your worst character trait?


Where is your favourite holiday destination?

Borneo. I spent two weeks there on a solo whistle-stop word tour and it really touched me – the people, the landscape, the food and the wildlife – especially the orangutans.

Best day of your life?

The day my husband asked me out. I didn't know it at the time, but he's the best thing that has ever happened to me.

What's your favourite breakfast?

I'm not a morning person and would happily skip breakfast forever. But for those lazy Sunday mornings, it's a croissant stuffed with smoked back bacon and Tiptree brown sauce.

What's your favourite tipple?

It was always G+T - I drank it before it was cool. Thank goodness the Oasis song 'Supersonic' came out when I was at university!

What's your hidden talent?

My vocal range. Although I have a very low singing voice, I sang Ave Maria at my brother's wedding.

When were you most embarrassed?

1986, and that's all I'm saying.

What's your earliest memory?

Sitting on my mum's knee when she was pregnant with my younger brother watching TV.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

This is really hard as it might be sooner than I'd like. I remembered that episode of Peter Kay's Car Share when Kayleigh plans her funeral songs, and I'd like my finale to be Hayley Westenra singing Caccini's Ave Maria. I've heard her sing it live and it's just beautiful.

Tell us something people don't know about you?

I have a bronze award for disco dancing (won when I was seven wearing a purple leotard and a gold sequinned belt).

What's the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

Your cancer has come back.

Tell us why you live here.

I married my husband.

What do you want to tell our readers about most?

I'm passionate about two things in life. The first is helping people with breast cancer to feel empowered and learn to make the most of the rest of their lives. To do that, I've written a book with Prof Trish Greenhalgh, called 'The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer (Vermillion)' – a head-to-toe, no-holds-barred guide for patients, family and friends. The second is exercise. As a triathlete, I've seen first-hand the positive difference exercise can have after a cancer diagnosis. This led to me setting up a website with colleagues called www.cancerfit.me to encourage and inspire everyone with cancer to get fit and active.

Read Liz's blog at http://liz.oriordan.co.uk/

Follow her on Twitter at @Liz_ORiordan

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