When Liz O’Riordan found a lump in her breast in summer 2015, she knew to book herself in for a mammogram and ultrasound because she was a breast cancer surgeon herself.
Even so, she was completely overwhelmed when she saw the test results.
“I looked at the screen and I knew it was cancer,” she recalls. ”I knew I’d need chemo and a mastectomy. I could calculate the risks, all of that. Whereas normally you find a lump, you have a scan, you have a biopsy and you’re drip-fed information, I knew everything at once.”
However, the 40-year-old from Suffolk was determined not to let her illness define her and went on to complete the triathlon she’d signed up for just before diagnosis, despite being in the midst of exhausting chemotherapy treatment
“I didn’t want cancer to take everything away from me,” O’Riordan, now 44, says. ”It took my job away from me because I couldn’t be a surgeon during treatment. You lose your hair, you lose your fertility. So I thought: ‘I still want to be able to exercise’.”
And she didn’t stop with just one race. O’Riordan has since taken on over eight physical challenges, including an Iron Man, Ride 100 on tandem and the Maratona Dles Dolomites race – a gruelling 138km bike ride across the Italian Dolomites mountain range.
“It’s thought exercise can reduce the impacts of chemo and reduce the likelihood of recurrence,” she says. “But for me it’s just about feeling fit and healthy and forgetting you have cancer.”
When she was first diagnosed, keeping the triathlon in sight helped O’Riordan work through the initial shock and gave her something to focus on outside of treatment. Friends and family were surprised at her dedication, considering she’d only recently discovered a love of cycling.
“I did very little exercise at school. I hated it,” she says. “But when I started dating my husband in my late 30s and I became a cycling widow and I thought: ‘If I don’t ride, I’ll never see him’.”
O’Riordan had completed her first triathlon nine months before her diagnosis, but she was still nervous about how she would fare with her second one, post-diagnosis, particularly because serious training wasn’t possible.
She took part in a “very slow” 5K Parkrun most weeks and would cycle to chemo when she wasn’t too tired, but she hadn’t swam for six months ahead of the race. She had to persuade the triathlon organisers to even let her take part.
“I said: ‘I’m going to be really slow, but I’ll be safe’” she recalls. ”‘My husband is a doctor too and he’ll be watching the whole way. If I feel ill I’ll stop, I’m not expecting you to look after me but please, please, please let me do it’.”
Her persistence paid off and although the triathlon was physically exhausting, completing it gave O’Riordan a sense of empowerment.
“I took me about 45 minutes to complete the final 5K run, but everybody was cheering me on and I was crying as I crossed the finish line,” she says. “My husband was there to meet me and I just thought: ‘this is me, the girl who hated sports at school, now asking to do triathlons during chemo’.”
On a complete high, she signed up to the Maratona Dles Dolomites race soon afterwards, and was told she was cancer-free after nine months of treatment.
But O’Riordan was dealt a second blow when her cancer returned below her armpit in May last year. She had more surgery, more radiotherapy and her ovaries removed and is now taking medication which will hopefully prevent the cancer coming back.
She says exercising – whether that’s doing a slow fun run or an intense cycling race – has helped her stay positive and optimistic about the future.
“It’s not extremely punishing because I’m not racing anybody, I’m just doing it for me,” she says. “It’s is a way of keeping strong, so I can cope with having cancer again if it does come back in the future.”
Despite working in the field, O’Riordan initially struggled to find practical advice on exercising during cancer treatment, so she’s joined forces with her triathlon coach Tanja Slater, alongside oncologist and Ironman competitor Dr Lucy Gossage, to create a website to help other patients.
Cancerfit.me allows patients to share their tips on training during cancer and puts the “science bits” in one place to help professionals and the public get clued up.
O’Riordan is a firm believer that you don’t have to be super sporty to do a triathlon – it might just take some time.
“If you can doggie paddle, you have a bike with stabilisers and you have trainers you can walk in, you can do it,” she insists, “you don’t have to run, you don’t have to swim front-crawl. You don’t have to train and you don’t need a load of expensive kit. You don’t need to be fast.
It sounds like a really scary intimidating sport but it’s not, it’s just fun.”
O’Riordan jokes that she’s gaining a strong collection of medals – “which is great, I like the bling!” – but the most valuable thing she’s taken away from her fitness challenges is fresh perspective on herself.
“I’ve learnt I have an inner strength that I never knew I had. I’ve learnt that my body is capable of far more than I’ve thought it was,” she says. “And it’s like, if I can get through chemo then I can get through anything.”
Liz O’Riordan, who used a Macmillan psychologist as her ‘safe space to talk to someone who understands…’ and the charity’s website for help and support, is encouraging others to raise money and make exercise work for them in 2019, by signing up to one of the Mighty Hikes events taking place across the UK at www.macmillan.org.uk/mightyhikes