Ahead of the first anniversary of Emma Hannigan’s death, four of her friends tell Esther McCarthy why the gifted author and outspoken breast-cancer campaigner will always be remembered
Emma Hannigan’s final novel, The Gift of Friends, has been released ahead of the first anniversary of her death on March 3. The author, who died aged 45 from breast cancer following 11 years of treatment, explores the bonds and joys of friendship in her latest novel.
Here, we speak to some of Emma’s friends about the bonds they forged and how she continues to inspire them.
Elaine and Emma became friends after she interviewed her for Ireland AM and she subsequently became a panellist on her TV3 show.
“We just clicked. Sometimes you just meet somebody and they’re your kind of person. She was just sparkly and funny and she baked left, right and centre — she’d always bring in goodies for everybody.”
Emma was always very straight up about her cancer. “She’d say: ‘I don’t mind talking about it, I’m gonna beat it as best I can, keep fighting’. She talked about it as if as if it was just a part of her life that she was dealing with.
“She wanted to not die of cancer but die with cancer... that it would become a chronic illness as opposed to a death sentence. That was her long-term aim. Hopefully, that’s what Breast Cancer Ireland now are going to do.”
There are several qualities that Elaine remembers and misses about her friend. “She’d a wicked sense of humour, absolutely hilarious. She’d a very good intuition about people, and, you know what, she was always right.
She will always remember Emma as a girlie girl who loved to wear colour. “She unashamedly loved the colour pink. She loved pretty dresses. She loved being a girl. She loved her shoes. She loved everything that was feminine.”
Emma was constantly there for support and encouragement.
“We’d have great chats when she was getting treated. She’d ring me and we’d spend ages on the phone nattering away. She’d give the greatest advice. I’d feel guilty because I’d have depression, and she had cancer. And she’d say: ’It’s not a competition, disease is difficult’ — ‘Just know that you’re loved and you’re perfect as you are’. It’s lovely to have someone like that in your life. She was loved by so many people and she loved so many people too. You can’t get better than that and she’ll never be forgotten.”
Fellow author Sinead would seek out her funny friend at book events and launches. They frequently kept in contact by text.
“We texted each other a lot, that was our main form of communication. After she was diagnosed with just two weeks to live, I couldn’t sleep and I was going through my phone that night, over texts from years and years. And in every text, she was coming out of chemo or going into chemo. It was just never ending. But she was relentlessly positive and optimistic and never moaned. I honestly don’t know how she kept so positive.”
She found it difficult to deal with the finality of the news.
“I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe that life could be so cruel to take somebody so young. And I just keep thinking about her two kids, because she absolutely adored her kids. She had recovered from cancer so many times and was so positive, so courageous and tried all the trial drugs. I never thought she would actually die.”
She will always remember Emma’s kindness and sense of fun. “She really was amazing. She was kind of exceptional. She always had a smile and a kind word for you and would be the first person to get in touch if she heard anything was going on or was wrong. A very generous spirit.
“There was an honesty in her humour, she just said it like it was. She always would end her messages with a funny comment.
Sinead, who treasures all of Emma’s books, says they will continue to entertain and comfort readers for years to come.
“I have her books, and I remember saying to her: ‘Your kids will always be able to find you in your books’.
“I think her books will continue to sell and give people great joy and entertainment and engagement. And I think her non-fiction books about her cancer will be of enormous comfort to people who are going through it.”
A top literary agent at Curtis Brown in London, Dublin native Sheila came to know of Emma’s work through her close friend and fellow author, Cathy Kelly.
Sheila went on to represent Emma and they became good friends. “I worked with Emma for the last 10 years. She was a blessing in our lives. ”
They first met in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel, where Emma attended their initial meeting with her businessman dad. “Because he didn’t know publishing, he was very happy for Emma to have an agent.”
Emma was in the early stages of her cancer treatment at the time. “We talked about how one thing she could do for people is to write a memoir of what she’d been through. So she wrote the first memoir which was Talk to the Head Scarf and then she did a very updated version of that, All to Live For, last year.”
Sheila, who also worked with her on many novels, feels that Emma had certain qualities that came through in her writing and helped her connect with readers.
“I think Emma had empathy with people and that came across in the way she wrote and the way she spoke. What I love about her writing is she’s a fantastic storyteller... You felt you were in the room, you felt you were in the circle of these people, you felt Emma.
When Sheila herself was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago, Emma was the first author she told. She has since successfully under- gone treatment.
A parcel arrived from Emma before she went to hospital. “This rescue package arrived with the pyjamas, the eye mask, the face spray. All the things she knew I’d need, the wipes, the lip balm. To go through that and to have Emma as a friend and inspiration, it was a great help. She introduced me to a pillow spray called Deep Sleep, by a company called This Works and it became the thing between us. Anytime I saw her, I’d have some for her and she’d have some for me.”
The CEO of Breast Cancer Ireland met Emma through a mutual friend and she quickly became involved in fundraising for research into treating the disease. The organisation continues to carry out work in her memory.
“At that time, we were about to launch a new event, which has become an annual event, which is called Battle of the Stars. It’s like a type of Strictly Come Dancing. Emma got involved.
“She actually had on her bucket list that she would love to do Dirty Dancing and do the iconic lift as part of that. She was going through treatment at the time so she used to literally leave Vincent’s Hospital and head over to us where we were training in the studios, and she would head in and do her dance routine.
“She used to say that each time that she was diagnosed with a different tumour or a different type of tumour that there were new clinical trials in the pipeline that she was able to avail of.”
Emma became a valuable voice in Breast Cancer Ireland’s work. “She had lots of really inspiring stories, situations in her life, things that she wanted us to consider doing, so we really brainstormed together. Every time we would chat about how could we make this difference in the world of breast cancer for patients that are going to be diagnosed.”
Aisling was deeply moved when Emma sent her a birthday message for a big birthday over a year ago when she was quite ill. “She sent us a video message for my birthday which we showed to everybody that was there because of course, she couldn’t make it. It showed me the absolute selflessness of this person that even at a time when she was considerably much sicker she took time out to send a birthday message.”
In recent weeks, her family came to see the work being carried out as part of a research fellowship named after Emma.
“Our survival rates are improving. In the last 10 years, we’ve improved for survival by about 75 to 85%. In my world, that’s just not good enough — we still need to push forward because ultimately Breast Cancer Ireland’s mission is that we want to transform breast cancer from often being a fatal disease to being a treatable long-term illness.”
Emma's last book "The gift of Friend" arrived to us yesterday. A very proud yet sad time as we know it is her last.
We really hope you enjoy her last gift to you - her friends. As it really is something special.
It will be in book shops on the 28th of February.
Emma Hannigan’s final novel, The Gift of Friends, is published by Hachette Ireland and is now in bookshops.
A Breast Cancer Ireland research fellowship in memory of the late author sees medics exploring the links between breast cancer and metastatic brain disease.
Damir Vareslija has been announced as the first recipient of the Emma Hannigan Research Fellowship, which will run for a three-year period.
Dr Vareslija’s research will focus on metastatic brain disease, secondary to the primary breast cancer, which occurs in between 10 and 30% of patients who have advanced disease.
Breast Cancer Ireland says that Emma’s Text CURE to 50300 campaign — which she generated in her final days — raised over €135,000 to support the organisation’s ongoing research efforts. It was a final, moving gesture following her years of spearheading and supporting campaigns.
Emma’s efforts to make breast cancer a manageable condition remain one of her great legacies.
In recent weeks, her parents, Philip and Denise, brother Timmy and husband Cian McGrath all visited the fellowship labs to witness first-hand the pioneering work being carried out in her memory.
“The naming of this fellowship in Emma’s honour recognises her valuable contribution to our research efforts and it ensures her memory lives on in transforming the landscape of breast cancer in Ireland into the future,” says Aisling Hurley, CEO of BCI.