A breast cancer diagnosis is a devastating blow, but for three Irish women it sparked a creative impulse, to shape a story — whether fictional, factual or visual.
We talk to Emma Hannigan, Majella O’Donnell and Áine Lawlor, who reframed their breast cancer experience — in fiction, memoir and documentary — and found a healing potential in putting their story ‘out’ there
COMPELLED TO WRITE
Emma Hannigan, 42, is fighting breast cancer for the ninth time.
In 2007, knowing she’d inherited the deadly BRCA1 gene — which dramatically raises risk of breast and ovarian cancer — she opted for surgery to remover her breasts and ovaries.
Mum to two teens, she has written 10 books since her first novel, Designer Genes, was published in 2009.
“I talked about it publicly from the word go. My first time on TV, I did The Late Late Show.
"I was on cancer number three. When you start off like that, [speaking publicly] becomes the norm.
“I felt compelled to write — the BRCA1 gene wasn’t well known. Fifty four per cent of cancers are genetic — it’s rare but I thought it would interest people.
"I started writing in the hospital as a spleen-venting exercise on my first day of chemo, hooked up to a drip in the Blackrock Clinic.
“I opened my laptop and started logging what was happening to me to get it out of my head.
"I was really enjoying the writing but what I was writing was very mechanical. I wondered would it be fun to turn it into fiction.
“It’s always shocking, frightening when cancer returns. Years ago, my oncologist said: ‘Let me worry about the cancer — you get on with your life’.
"I took him at his word. I have an amazing [medical] team who look after my body.
"I just get on with my job — I know there’s going to be a book on the shelf at the end of it all. That’s the dominant thing. The cancer’s in the background.
“Writing’s the same for the writer as for the reader. You get involved with the characters, the story. It’s escapism.
"I wrote The Heart of Winter in the waiting room of St Vincent’s Hospital, where I was having 50 sessions of radiation.
"It’s a warm family story set around Christmas — it couldn’t be further removed from where I was sitting, which shows the beauty of writing.
“Writing’s a gift to me — it keeps my mind occupied, positive, off the cancer. I’ve had very few dark moments of the soul.
“I get 50 emails a week from readers. Some write 10-page letters. Because I talk, they feel they can talk back. I did a series for Xposé — tips for make-up, hair, tattooing eyebrows.
"Women thanked me for the eyebrow tip. They were clear of cancer but their eyebrows never grew back — looking in the mirror reminded them.
“My family [husband Cian, her parents and children] never say much about my writing. They know I’m happy doing it. They come to my book launches and smile — I think they’re alright.
"I don’t talk about my private life much. What I say is predominantly about the cancer, living with it, being positive.
"I don’t do photos of the children — it’s not their journey and it isn’t fair to throw them in the mix.
“There’s nothing I regret. I don’t write/say anything that compromises me. I can’t recommend enough writing things down, even jotting your feelings in the notes section of your iPhone. It’s a great way of getting stuff out of your head.”
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, Majella O’Donnell, 55, had her head shaved on live TV after her first chemo session. She wrote about her cancer in her book, It’s All in the Head.
“When I was diagnosed, I never took breast cancer on board too much. I took each day as it came. I’m very much a positive thinker.
“I thought: I got it early and it’s in a part of my body I don’t need. I was shocked when they said I had to go for chemo but at least I wasn’t having it to shrink a tumour — it was to protect my future.
“In the book, I was trying to get across that there are positives in everything. I never in a million years thought I’d write a book.
"[When the idea was first mooted], I thought ‘Gosh no! I don’t think so’. I met the publisher, who thought I could do it. I asked: Do I get a ghost-writer? He said have a go at writing it myself.
“I didn’t want to write a book just about my cancer journey because I never got too emotionally involved in that journey. So I wrote down the facts in one chapter. I didn’t go back emotionally or re-live it.
“Going public was OK — I’m a bit of a chatterbox. I’m not worried about what people think— I am who I am.
"If you don’t like it, that’s fine. Because I’m good at expressing myself, I thought it might help others if I shared what it was like for me.
“My philosophy is very much live for today. I wanted to get that across.
“When my family heard I was going to write, they were a bit sceptical. I showed Daniel what I wrote about him and my mum and siblings what I wrote about my parents.
"Nobody saw the whole book. I didn’t want to be influenced because then it wouldn’t be me. Once they read it, they were all impressed.
“So many people have contacted me — people who said they’d never before written a letter — saying how positive the chapter on cancer was. Even if it only helped them for the time they were reading it, I’m happy.
“Writing about my cancer didn’t make it more meaningful or real for me. I never let cancer get into my core being — I never let it get that far. It’s just a chapter on a part of my life — how I dealt with it.”
In her documentary, Áine Lawlor: Facing Cancer, the broadcaster traced her treatment for HER2 .
“Making the documentary was something I wanted to do as soon as I felt well again. I found my own treatment fascinating and the doctors had been so generous with information.
"It was an easy decision to do it because of the new therapies coming on stream — the fact more people survive than die from breast cancer now. It’s not an automatic death sentence anymore,” says Áine, 53.
“Talking about my own personal journey isn’t something I necessarily like doing. But you have to be honest. We told the story through people and I was one of those people.
"What I didn’t expect about going public was that I was joining a community and it’s really supportive. I was bowled over by the kindness of people.
“I [also] found so many people understood about immunotherapy and came up to talk to me about it afterwards.
“My family has been fantastic [about the documentary]. I hope they found it useful. I think they did. The thing that being sick taught me — now that I’ve been given a second chance — is that life is not about regrets.
"It’s not that you do everything right but you live life in a way where you’re not looking back saying ‘I wish I’d tried this, done that’.”
Áine Lawlor presents News at One on RTÉ Radio 1 and The Week in Politics.
* Raise funds for breast cancer research and services this October by participating in the Irish Cancer Society’s Paint it Pink campaign.
* Wear a pink tie, bake a pink cake, host a pink party, paint your nails pink, change your profile picture to pink or even paint your house pink. Share pictures of your activity on social media using the hashtag #PINKPICS and text the word Pink to 50300 to donate €4 to the Irish Cancer Society.
* You can also buy/wear a pink ribbon; host a fundraising coffee morning or a sponsored walk; or have a ‘wear pink day’, a spin-a-thon, or a cake sale at work. Visit www.paintitpink.ie for more.
* For the second consecutive year, the Marie Keating Foundation is urging women across Ireland to ‘Give your Bra for Breast Cancer’. Donate an unwanted bra in any size, colour, style or condition to the charity during October.
* The campaign, supported by Roche, sees the Marie Keating Foundation receive €1 for every bra donated. A full list of drop-off points will be available at www.mariekeating.ie from September 28. Drop-off points include Marks & Spencer and Harvey Norman stores.
* Last year, women in Ireland donated over 40,000 bras, which were given to art students to up-cycle and to women in areas of Africa.
* You can also donate €2 to the Marie Keating Foundation by texting BRAVO to 50030 and posting a selfie to social media of you giving your bra for breast cancer using #SayBravo.