Ann Dowley Spillane talks to Helen O’Callaghan about her vision for The Girls Club.
IT was derelict when Ann Dowley Spillane first saw it. No floors, kitchen or toilets, just bare walls. Ann saw a blank canvas. Despite the disrepair, she felt “an amazing feeling” of comfort.
“Coming in the door, my mother was behind me. I said ‘can you see what’s going to go on here?’ She said ‘no, you’re ill, you have no money’.”
Still in the throes of treatment for cervical cancer when she first saw No 26 St Paul’s Avenue, near Cork city centre, Ann had a vision for what she wanted the space to be — for what she wanted to offer women affected by cancer.
She had started The Girls Club a couple of months earlier after placing a newspaper ad calling anybody affected by cancer to a meeting in the Ambassador Hotel. About 100 turned up.
More meetings followed, for which she organised book readings, beauty sessions and cake demos – “things that had nothing to do with cancer, yet it was great to know the girl across the way was going through what you were going through”.
In naming her cancer support centre The Girls Club, Ann was offering an alternative space to those affected by cancer.
For her, the name has resonances of ‘I’m going out with the girls’ —a carefree, ‘leave your troubles behind and let’s have fun’ kind of attitude.
“We all want to be known as girls. Even 70-year-olds say ‘I’m going out with the girls’. I wanted to show you can still have a life with cancer.”
Almost six years on, the three-storey building with the pink door offers services including counselling, reflexology, reiki, mindfulness and integrated energy therapy.
All are free to those touched by cancer (a donation to the centre’s fund is appreciated). Therapies are provided by practitioners who’ve been affected by cancer.
All appointments go through Girls Club manager Linda Goggin James, who met Ann two years ago through a mutual friend who had breast cancer.
“I pick the therapist I feel would work best. Some people might just need to relax so I’d suggest a soothing treatment.
"People going through cancer treatment often can’t have certain therapies – we’d suggest angel or touch therapy. I’m also be guided by what the person themselves wants.”
With a work background in the hotel and pub trade, the mum of one lives in Mayfield in Cork, and is married to Jack who works in construction.
Despite having lots of support, Ann, 53, says cancer is one of the loneliest journeys.
“I have an amazing family but you become protective of them.”
She finds what people with cancer most want is not to feel alone.
“You can’t tell your family everything.”
She feels strongly about how people communicate around cancer.
“When you get cancer you become a memory. People would say to my mother about me ‘oh, she was a lovely girl, she didn’t deserve that’— and I’d be standing there.”
Ann believes post-traumatic stress often occurs once cancer treatment is over.
“It’s like you’re on death row. You go back for tests and you’re paroled. The damage it does to your head is unbelievable – you’ve looked death in the face. We had a woman in this morning.
"She’s over cancer two years and she can’t cope with everyday life. It’s the fear of it coming back. Here, we try to give tools to deal with the fear. We hold confidence-building workshops.”
At the Girls Club, a cancer support group for 18 to 30-year-olds also meets.
Just Say Cancer started last September and is the first such group in Munster. And there’s a Boys Club for men affected by cancer.
The Girls Club is run on donations (annual cost is about €70,000), with several fundraisers held through the year.
“We could be down to our last tenner and somebody comes in with a cheque,” says Ann.
The sense of abundance of offerings, of the public’s generosity, is evident when she takes me on walkabout. We begin in the drop-in centre on the second floor —a large, open-plan room with a loft-like feel.
“I wanted a home away from home,” she says.
Couches are scattered with cushions and throws, there’s low lamplight, bright prints and mirrors on the wall, a big stuffed dog and background sounds of running water.
It’s a soothing oasis of calm, yet with poignant touches: the clown/golfer doll “made by a lady who passed away from cancer” and Ann’s comment: “if someone’s feeling ill, they lie on the couch and we cover them”.
As we tour 26 St Paul’s Avenue, Ann says Munster Furniture donated the furniture. The dishwasher in the kitchen is donated – so are 60 chairs in the meditation room.
And, says Ann, “there’s someone coming in tomorrow to clean every one of those seats – for free”.
The meditation room at the top of the house quadruples as other spaces.
It’s where ballroom dancing happens, where a Thai cook teaches how to make nutritious curries, where month’s mind services are held and where old movies are shown (an archive of 2,000 was donated).
“People with cancer are advised to avoid public places because the immune system’s low. But if a mum [with cancer] wants to go to a film with her children, she can come in here and have her own private cinema.”
In another room, wool is piled high.
“That must go out this week,” Ann says in a quiet reminder to herself.
It’s for Blankets of Hope, an idea she saw in the US, where it was called Layers of Love.
“We started it two years ago. On your first day of chemo, you’re so frightened. If an oncology nurse gives you a hand-made blanket, maybe with angels on it — it’s like a comfort blanket. And it can be cold on the chemo wards — there’s air conditioning and your bloods could be up and down.”
So far, she says, 8,100 blankets have been donated to oncology departments in Cork hospitals.
Margaret Kelleher got involved with the Wednesday night Knit & Natter group at the Girls Club two years ago – another group meets on Thursday mornings.
"Blanket of Hope is a symbol," she says.
"Somebody made this for you. They were thinking of you. It’s a gift of comfort, love and companionship.”
Aside from blankets, the Knit & Natter group makes turbans out of bamboo and cotton.
Ever since her dad died 40 years ago, Margaret says cancer has been “a huge thing in my life”.
Plus she’s a knitaholic. Knit & Natter, she says, is like a bunch of friends. While making the blankets, they talk about everything. Recent topics included the cheapest place to get wool, a trip to Kerry and the chore of painting your house.
Meanwhile, as Ann shows me around, her eyes light on a lusciously beautiful dark wig.
“Look! Another wig dropped in. Oh this is great! I know just who this is for.”
The Girls Club has the only wig bank in Ireland.
“People donate their old wigs, hats and scarves. We get them sanitised. To date, we’ve given out over 900 wigs free. Cancer’s expensive. Not everybody has a medical card or €600 for a wig,” she says.
And for those who don’t find wigs comfortable, there’s the option of a kind of hair extension that attaches to headwear so you’ve got a fringe and the illusion of long hair. Ann dons one.
“Friar Tuck,” she jokes. And that’s not all.
“Look,” she says, “these are knitted knockers, made by a volunteer for people who don’t like prostheses. You put them in your bra. They’re soft — prostheses are hard.”
Pointing to another soft, crafted item, she explains: “these are knitted cushions to knead if you’re feeling anxious”.
The Girls Club, it seems, thinks of everything, even the stuff nobody else would. And you’d expect nothing less from ‘the girls’.
Breast Cancer month
* Adopt pink rubber duck to swim in Pfizer Powering Pink Duck Race in aid of Marie Keating Foundation.
Ronan and Storm Keating are encouraging people to get behind the campaign.
Up to 10,000 rubber ducks will race in Dublin’s River Liffey on Saturday, October 15.
* Adopt a duck for €5 – all proceeds to Marie Keating Foundation’s breast cancer programmes/services.
Each duck is numbered and the owner of the first to cross the finish line wins weekend break for two at five-star Conrad Hotel (includes pre-dinner cocktails and one evening dinner).
For more info/to adopt a duck, visit www.mariekeating.ie/ducks
* Generous companies are going pink with a purpose by becoming Pink Patrons for Marie Keating Foundation.
Companies helping raise funds for the Foundation’s breast cancer fight: bb’s bakers + baristas, Stella & Dot, Pigsback, Skechers and Theya Healthcare.
* Irish Cancer Society asks you to Paint it Pink this October. Host pink coffee morning/event and join fight against breast cancer. Money raised will help provide services to support people through cancer and also fund cancer research.
Visit www.paintitpink.ie or call 1850 606060 for fundraising ideas/breast cancer info. Or text Pink to 50300 to donate €4 to Irish Cancer Society.
* RTÉ presenter Miriam O’Callaghan has announced Irish Cancer Society’s Pink Partners — 18 Irish companies who’ll donate proceeds from their products/services to support thousands affected by breast cancer.
Pink Partner companies are: Aran Sweater Market, Ballyfree Free Range Eggs, Barry’s Tea, Boots, Centra, Chanelle Group, Cloud10 Beauty, Dairygold Co-Op, Fullwood Packo, GAA Jewellery, ghd, IFFPG, Inglot, Prestigious Textiles Ireland/SLX, The Little Greene Paint Company, www.MissDesignerGolf.com O’Sullivan’s Mobility Aids and Tropical Popical.
Breast cancer facts
* Latest figures (for 2013) show 2,983 people received a breast cancer diagnosis that year — 2,942 women; 41 males. This is a three percent increase on 2012.
* Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in females in Ireland. A woman has a one in 11 chance of developing it. Vast majority of women with breast cancer are 50 to 64-years-old (40%).
* Numbers surviving breast cancer are increasing — 85% of those diagnosed now live five years and beyond.
* Phone Cancer Nurseline: 1800 200 700.
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