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Surgeon as Patient: Breast Surgeon with Breast Cancer

01 Mar 2016

Miss Liz Ball

Up until July 2015, I defined myself by my achievements. I was a Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, and was proud to be a member of the College’s WinS (Women in Surgery) committee. I’ve been involved in the fantastic work that WinS does in inspiring and helping surgical women at all stages of their career, and help the women below me climb up the surgical ladder.

As a junior doctor, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of female surgical registrars and consultants that I knew. There were only a couple of women on my SHO rotation, and I got used to working in a man’s world. Eight years later, however, as an SpR, female trainees and consultants surrounded me. It was great to watch and learn how to practice surgery from a female perspective, and see that anything is possible, if you put your mind to it.

Back to July last year - I was diagnosed with breast cancer myself. My world turned upside down in an instant, and within a week I started chemotherapy. My problem was that I knew too much. As soon as I saw my breast ultrasound I knew exactly what lay ahead. All the possible complications and worst-case scenarios flashed before my eyes.

I was being treated at a hospital where my husband works as a consultant surgeon, and where I had worked twice as an SpR. It was hard for my surgeon to look after me, because she was a close friend outside of work. One of the hardest things to cope with was putting our friendship on hold for the duration of my treatment. We had to do it, though, to help her cope with looking after me. A fabulous all-female team of consultants (surgeon, anaesthetist, oncologist) treated me, and I also work with a similar team in my own hospital. Whilst I do not think only women should care for women with breast problems it’s great that this is now becoming common rather than the exception to the rule, as it was when I started training.

I nervously decided to ‘come out’ on Twitter (@Liz_ORiordan), and I’m so glad I did. Both my husband and I were overwhelmed by the support we received, and I found my own ‘tribe’ of doctors with breast cancer who understood the complexities of being a doctor and a patient. I began blogging to try and help both doctors and patients understand what it’s really like to have chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. I thought I knew, but I really didn’t.

Breast cancer will definitely change the way I practise surgery in the future. I now know what it’s like to hear bad news, and how little you take in afterwards whilst your surgeon is trying to consent you. I know the difficulties involved in deciding whether to have a reconstruction after a mastectomy. I also realised that when the surgeon discharged me, it was just the beginning of the rest of my life – with fear and anxiety, positivity and empowerment ahead of me. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do now define myself very differently.

Miss Liz Ball MBChB FRCS PhD PGDip Oncoplastic Surgery, Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust

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