- Consultant surgeon Liz O’Riordan was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40
- Specialist breast surgeon has been treated for this disease on two occasions
- She has created tutorial videos to show women how to check their breasts
- Now cancer-free, Dr. O’Riordan wants to help women protect themselves
Do you regularly check your breasts for signs of cancer? I didn’t — and I was a breast surgeon who spent a career treating breast cancer. Like most women, I didn’t think I’d have breast cancer. And then, at age 40, it did.
I saw a lump in my left breast in the mirror one day while getting dressed. I could have sworn it wasn’t the day before. But it would have happened, although for how long I can only guess. The scan showed that the tumor was large: about the size of Satsuma.
I had chemo and a mastectomy. And then the cancer came back in the scar tissue where I had my breasts, so I had more surgery and more treatments.
I am cancer free now but it has changed me physically and mentally. I had to have an operation to remove my ovaries to make sure the medicines I needed to take would work. I also had to quit my job as a surgeon because of immobility in my arm – a legacy of my treatment.
Consultant surgeon Liz O’Riordan, a two-time breast cancer survivor, has released a video for women showing how they can get tested for the disease.
Pictured, Dr. O’Riordan, advises women to raise their hands above their heads before attempting a self-exam.
And I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if my life would have been different if I had discovered that lump sooner—if I checked my breasts regularly, as we’ve been told.
There is no point in thinking: ‘What if?’ Once I found it, I asked for help, as most women do. But this question always remains and I now ask people to check their breasts regularly.
The truth is, studies show that regular self-checks do not improve overall breast cancer survival. Some women develop tumors that we cannot treat.
But with regular self-exams, you may have cancer at an earlier stage. And it may mean avoiding mastectomy and other more invasive treatments.
Surveys generally show that less than half of women examine their breasts with any sort of consistency. In my experience, patients do this when they hear a story in the news about a celebrity who has breast cancer. Or they do it before going in for a mammogram – although this only applies to women aged 50 to 70. Your risk of getting breast cancer increases as you age, and a mammogram can pick up a lump that’s too small to feel or see.
The message from doctors to women has, subtly, over the years shifted from asking everyone to ‘examine themselves’ to be ‘breast aware’ and ‘know what is normal for you’. has given. Most breast changes are seen during everyday activities, such as taking a bath or simply rolling over in bed.
Dr. O’Riordan said it’s important to keep checking yourself — even after a mastectomy because her cancer has come back in the scar tissue.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing to know how to properly examine your breasts—and I’m often asked about the best ways to do so.
In response, I decided to make a series of videos, which I shared on social media, showing how to do it. They have already been viewed thousands of times.
I suggest doing a self-check once a month, in the middle of your period, if you still have it, as this is when breasts are less likely to get lumpy naturally. Here’s what else you need to know…
First look topless
Look at yourself topless in front of the mirror. This may sound strange – especially when we are faced with endless images of ‘perfect’ symmetrical breasts in the media. Breasts are sisters, not twins, hence the saying: One is often a full cup size larger than the other and may have one nipple less.
Don’t judge yourself. just look. If your breasts are heavy, lift them up so that you can see below.
Then, relaxing your arms, twist to one side, and then to the other. You are looking for visible lumps under the skin. You are also looking for any puckering of the skin. It can be very subtle.
This is because the tumors stick to threads of tissue from the chest wall, backwards, through the skin of the breast. As the cancer grows, it compresses this tissue, and this is why you may see dimples. We call this tethering.
in my video, I showed what it looked like by using a car wash sponge that I picked up at the local garage.
When I mentioned on social media that I was planning on making a video, I was flooded with volunteers who said they would show me how to check breasts as a model. But I wanted to keep it as neutral as possible, and the sponges, while not exactly the same as breasts, were a fair approximation. They have a certain amount of doneness—enough to show how to press down on the breast to feel the lump (more on that later).
Dr. O’Riordan has produced a series of videos on self-examination that have been viewed thousands of times on social media.
By folding up and pressing down one corner of the sponge, and thus leaving a mark, I was able to simulate what the tethering looked like. It’s a subtle indent, but that’s the point.
Also look at the nipple and whether it is pulled in – we call this an inversion.
Some women have normally inverted nipples. When cold or agitated they will probably still be outside when they stand up. But cancer growing under the nipple can pull it inwards due to tethering, and in these cases it will be reversed no matter what happens.
The next thing you do is keep your hands above your head. Then place your hands on your hips and push towards your waist to tense the chest muscles. Doing so may reveal a lump, or tethering, that you might not otherwise see.