Majella O’Donnell on life after breast cancer

Majella O’Donnell has won the battle against breast cancer but now stress is her biggest challenge, she tells Irene Feighan

Majella O'Donnell was diagnosed with breast cancer when she felt in the best shape of her life. Picture: Fergal Phillips

PERFECT selfies, staged Instagram shots and happy-ever-after Facebook snaps - it’s never been easier to manage our image. 

But for Majella O’Donnell it’s always been the unvarnished truth and nothing but the truth.

It’s what makes her so compelling to listen to across all mediums, print, radio and TV. 

And it’s what the public generously responded to when in September 2013 she bravely had her head shaved for charity on The Late, Late Show at the start of her chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Almost three years later, she is the picture of glowing health when we meet on a sunny afternoon in the restaurant at Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Co Dublin. 

She is just back from a cruise with her husband, country singer Daniel O’Donnell, and looks tanned, relaxed and toned — thanks to a strict workout regime on board. 

But while she has every reason to be content with her life — including her young granddaughter Olivia, who “is ridiculously important”— she is struggling to get back on track post-treatment.

“As far as being as confident as I used to be, that seems to have all fallen apart for me,” she says, cutting straight to the core of what’s on her mind.

“I would have put a lot of not being able to do things down to recovery. But I feel now I should be back to myself and I’m not. And I don’t think I ever will be.

“I don’t know whether that’s to do with cancer, or my age, or the change, but I cannot seem to deal with stress at all anymore.”

It’s a big change from the dynamic businesswoman who in the 1990s, as a conference and banqueting manager in a five-star hotel in Edinburgh, had a budget of £2m along with a large staff to oversee.

“At the time, I was divorced and I had two children going to school and I had that job. I couldn’t even manage the job on my own now or the children, never mind doing the two,” she laughs.

At one stage, she ran three restaurants in Dublin with her former husband. 

“I loved all that. I loved the buzz. I loved being able to cope with everything. And now I hate feeling incompetent. “

It doesn’t help that at key moments she goes blank when reaching for a word or name. 

It was particularly stressful while recording the B&B Road Trip.

“Daniel and I are constantly on camera. We are just talking and I’ll open my mouth and I’ll always get something wrong. The name will be wrong or it’ll come out the wrong way. It’s like I’m stupid and I don’t know what the words are. And it shocks me.

“On camera, I make a joke out of it. But deep down it is making me feel more and more like I want to retreat from everything publicly.”

And this includes singing. She released an album in 2012, has recorded a song with her friend Cliff Richard and has sung live with Daniel (their duet True Love is a treat). But these days she finds it too pressurising.

“I can’t remember words and then I get stressed. Daniel said to me, ‘Why are you doing this if you’re stressed?’ And I thought ‘you’re right’.

“Sometimes I love it — it’s usually when I’ve had a glass of wine at a party for a bit of craic.”

Often something has to give when your body is being assaulted on all fronts. 

In a short space of time she underwent a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction, chemotherapy and started the menopause. 

Also, she was prescribed Letrozole, a long-term preventative hormone treatment which effectively starves cancer cells by depriving them of oestrogen. 

“I’m two years into that. I’ll be nearly 60 by the time I come off it,” she says.

A pragmatic Thurles woman, she has kept her sense of perspective on how to manage her lifestyle post treatment.

“I started reading all sorts of things: get rid of dairy, don’t eat sugar, coffee enemas are fantastic and so on. So I started to drink green tea and not eating processed foods, not drinking — but, you know what, I just felt miserable.

“I am a firm believer in fate. I believe if it metastasizes somewhere else or if I’m going to die of cancer, everything is planned.

“Of course, I’m not going to be silly. I don’t smoke, I don’t over drink. But there are loads of people I know who didn’t smoke or drink and who died of cancer, including my grandmother. “

It seems deeply unfair that she was in the best shape of her life when when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the Beacon Hospital where she was treated by, among others, Dr Jennifer Westrup (see sidebar).

“I’d been in Tenerife for three months, I’d had a personal trainer three days a week and was doing a lot of swimming, I was working really, really hard. And then when I came back in July I was diagnosed with cancer. I just don’t think there’s any sense to it.”

In what may well have been a defence mechanism, she refused to take the diagnoses on board fully. 

“I never really believed it. I was never shocked... I didn’t cry. I just said: ‘OK what does that mean? What can we do about it?’ It was like my brain didn’t actually absorb the diagnosis. Maybe that’s a coping thing. 

“People say you’re very strong. Maybe it’s the opposite?”

I ask if her decision to get her head shaved on the most widely watched TV show was part of this surreal time? Her response is unequivocal: “It was something from above.”

And once the idea took hold, there was no stopping her. 

“I was like a mad woman to get it done. I started ringing the Irish Cancer Society and companies, asking will you sponsor me and so on. And then, after when it was done, I thought: “that was a bit risky, it could have backfired. It could have been taken up offensively by people. But I felt it in my bones it was coming from a good place.”

On the night, she looked vulnerable sitting alone in front of the audience. But she didn’t want it any other way. 

“I would have died if one of my family members was holding my hand — I would have bawled.”

Initially, she baulked at the idea of doing an interview before the head shave. 

“I argued with him [Ryan Turbridy] about that. I didn’t want to do it. I just thought, I’ll go out and I’ll do it and I’m gone. I didn’t want it to be about me.”

But without the interview the head shave could have easily looked like a gimmick. Instead, we saw her determination to shake off the taboo that surrounds cancer.

She held her nerve during the the interview but then came the ad break and the white gown. 

“I went over to the chair and it hit me: now is the moment and I’m going to shave my head, oh shit. And then I started crying. Ryan was saying we can stop it right now - you don’t have to go through this. And I said, ‘No, no , no’. And then once it started, I started to relax. and I was fine. It’s like the first step is the hardest.”

In her book, All in the Head, she writes about looking in the mirror after the show and feeling like a rebel. What else did she think at the time? 

“I thought, I don’t care. I don’t even care if I wear a wig or not”.

The public response was phenomenal, from the standing ovation on the night to the response to the fundraiser for the Irish Cancer Society - breaking its website in the process. 

Majella’s Pink Appeal raised €700,000, exactly the shortfall from the ICS’s annual Daffodil Day, which had been devasted by bad weather. No one was more surprised than Majella herself. 

“I thought the response would be —clap, clap, clap and some people would say ‘she’s mad’ or ‘that’s an awful thing to do’ or others would say ‘she’s very brave’ ... and we’d raise maybe €30,000 or €40,000. But what the hell happened?”

She brought the same no-holds-barred attitude to her subsequent treatment, insisting on getting a double mastectomy, even though it was something she herself chose to do. 

“I said even if there is a 1% chance of the cancer not returning by having a double mastectomy then I’ll go for it.”

Determined to see the glass half full, she says she felt lucky to have cancer “in a part of my body that could be cut off”. 

It wasn’t essential to living.

Also, being older helped. 

“I was 53 years of age not 30 — my breasts weren’t as important to me. Of course, it’s important if you put a dress on, that your shape is there. But without them, I wouldn’t feel less than a woman.”

She opted for a reconstruction using implants but it hasn’t been plain sailing since. A follow-up operation was needed after one of the breasts constricted.

“They are still not great,” she says. 

“I still need another operation. When I’m in a dress or wearing a bra they look fine. But they are hard as rocks and freezing cold - that’s the weirdest thing. There is no tissue — it’s only skin over the implant.”

Looking at the bright woman sitting opposite me, full of energy and searching honesty, it’s hard to believe she suffers from clinical depression. 

Though she has it under control with the help of medication, she is still haunted by the black dog from time to time, particularly when the pressure piles on with work and travel commitments.

“Everyone knows because I speak about depression but I don’t think that people actually realise that I suffer from it. 

"For example, I was at Relay for Life in Donegal with Daniel and a woman came up to me and said, ‘Majella you are an inspiration’. But I was particularly down that day and I just said, ‘Yeah, but it’s a battle’.

“I wanted to say: ‘If you only knew how bad I feel today, you wouldn’t be admiring me as much because I haven’t got it figured out as well as you think I have — I’m still battling with it.”

At home, she has her own ways of looking after herself. 

“If I’m down I just potter about and go out in the garden or whatever. But when I wake up and I’m down on a day that I have to do something in the public eye — it’s hard.

“This brings me back to what I said at the beginning — I hate not being able to take on everything. But that is how you’ve got to manage yourself when you have a mental health condition.”

She is keenly aware of the many blessings in her life: her children, Siobhán and Michael, her granddaughter Olivia and Daniel. But they have their lives to live and she has own journey to consider.

“I know how lucky and how privileged I am...But I’m not the person I used to be.

“I am only 56, I don’t want to talk as if I was 95 or 100 but I don’t feel as dynamic as I was in the past and that’s just something I’m going to have to live with.”

We talk about transitions in life and how each one brings its own challenges, some of them temporary slow downs. 

“Maybe I will improve,” she says, warming to the subject. 

“Maybe I will be dynamic again in five years’ time. What do they say: life begins at 40? Maybe life begins at 60.”

Whatever the future may bring, one thing remains constant: Majella O’Donnell’s commitment to the truth. It’s what keeps us coming back for more.

October is breast cancer awareness month.


Mind and body: expert view on breast awareness

Advice from Majella’s consultant 

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women. One in eight women develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. 

Due to improvements in awareness and screening, breast cancer diagnoses have increased. 

However, this is balanced by a clear decline in mortality rates due to the introduction of many new therapies and the use of multiple therapies such as: surgery, chemotherapy, antibody therapy, radiotherapy, and endocrine therapy.

Breast awareness needs to part of a wider awareness of whole body physical and mental health. 

Women at every age must try to balance their own health maintenance with the needs of their partner, their children, older family members, the demands of work and community.

I often ask women, ‘When was the last time you visited your GP and had a discussion about your weight, had your blood pressure and cholesterol checked, and had a complete physical exam?’ 

Often, women will put everyone and everything ahead of their own physical and mental health.

I encourage all women to routinely take stock of their physical and mental health. In doing so, include these tips for breast awareness:

1. Lifestyle is important:

Exercise daily.

Maintain a healthy weight (see body mass index calculators online).

Breastfeed if you can.

Drink alcohol in moderation (alcohol use is a risk factor for breast cancer).

Limit post-menopausal hormone use.

2. Know your history:

Cancers can be inherited from both sides of the family, so it is important you know your family history.

3. Make screening part of your life:

Have a clinical breast exam at least every three years.

Have a mammogram every two years from the age of 50-69.

Talk with your doctor about screening if you are at higher risk.

4. Know when to seek immediate advice:

If you notice any of the following breast changes, see your doctor without delay:

Lump or thickening under the arm or in the breast area.

Swelling, redness, warmth or discoloration of the breast.

Change in the size or shape of the breast.

Change in the skin of the breast: puckering or dimpling.

Rash at nipple that may be itchy or scaly.

Sudden nipple discharge.

Area of breast pain that does not go away.

5. Use online resources:

Websites for further information: Irish Cancer Society

Marie Keating Foundation

Susan Komen Foundation

* Dr Jennifer Westrup is a consultant medical oncologist at the Beacon Hospital, Dublin

October is breast cancer awareness month.


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