Emma Hannigan Has Fought Off 8 Episodes of Cancer!
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By EMMA HANNIGAN
PUBLISHED: 00:01, 30 March 2014 | UPDATED: 00:01, 30 March 2014
Author Emma Hannigan tells her inspiring story
‘Cancer is not always a death sentence’
‘Cancer is not always a death sentence’
I live beside the sea in the town of Bray, just along the coast from Dublin in Ireland. I’ve been married to Cian for 15 years and we have two children. We built a house in my parents’ garden, and our goldendoodle puppy and fat furry tabby cat have space to roam and frolic. All perfectly idyllic. Then came the day, back in 2007, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time at the age of 33.
From the outset I was determined cancer wasn’t going to ruin everything. Doctors assured me that my prognosis was good, so I chose to believe them and embrace this new and rather terrifying knowledge. My children, seven and five, were at the forefront of my mind as I contemplated what lay ahead, and I made a decision there and then that I was going to talk to them openly.
Within hours of that first conversation with the doctors, Cian brought the children into the hospital and I sat with them in the coffee shop. Armed with juice and chocolate muffins, I explained that I had two things going on, which was why I was having sleepovers in the hospital.
‘Had I been diagnosed 20 years ago, I doubt I’d still be here’
One thing was an autoimmune disease called dermatomyositis (this can occur independently or in conjunction with cancer; mine came alongside) and a lady doctor would fix that. The other thing was called cancer and a man doctor would fix that. ‘That’s fair,’ said my son. ‘A boy will fix one and a girl will fix the other.’ He looked to his sister, comfortable with this gender-balanced solution.
I used all the grown-up words like cancer, tumour and chemotherapy. I knew the children accepted these words because I’d delivered them with a calm smile. They trusted me without question. I never wanted to break that trust.
I explained that I would need special anti-cancer medicine. ‘Do you know the funniest part about the chemotherapy medicine?’ I asked. ‘What?’ They leaned forwards. ‘It’s going to make all my hair fall out and I’ll look like a lollipop if I don’t wear a wig!’ They both giggled.
‘Why does the other thing have such a long name?’ my son asked, looking perplexed. ‘I don’t know,’ I answered honestly. ‘It would be easier if it had a nice short name like cancer, wouldn’t it?’ We agreed that they could just tell their friends I had cancer.
My husband wasn’t feeling quite as brave as me at that point. Survival instinct had kicked in to keep me focused, but he was still in shock, so he’d chosen to go for a walk while I broke the news to the children. As he returned to the café, the children ran over to him. ‘Mum has cancer but it’s going to be fixed,’ they said, thrilled with their new knowledge. He smiled and nodded encouragingly.
As I got up to follow them, I noticed an elderly couple, their faces drenched in tears. ‘We’re sorry,’ the lady said. ‘We overheard your conversation. We hope you’ll be OK.’ I apologised for upsetting them and told them I fully intended to get better.
I had six months of chemotherapy, lost my hair, lost weight and felt pretty rough at times. I had my share of infections and all the other delights oncology patients are privy to. But I emerged feeling victorious. At that point, I honestly felt I’d done my time with the whole cancer thing.
Emma with her husband Cian, son Sacha and daughter Kim
Emma with her husband Cian, son Sacha and daughter Kim
The truth is, I’d already known about the cancer risk, because two of my maternal aunts had survived breast cancer, another had died from it, and a great-aunt had died of ovarian cancer. But I thought I’d dealt with it. In 2005,
I had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, which gave me an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of ovarian cancer. Feeling empowered by the knowledge, in 2006 I had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and also had both ovaries removed. I felt it was a small price to pay to reduce my risk to five per cent, and I was pragmatic about the surgery. I honestly thought I’d be safe from cancer now. Sadly, I wasn’t.
I knew the surgeons had found pre-cancer cells in the tissue of my left breast during the mastectomy, but I’d been mistakenly assured that no further treatment was required. In fact, my cancer diagnosis came less than a year after that preventative surgery. Breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes and that’s exactly what had happened in my case, manifesting in my neck, shoulder and armpit on the left side.
Since that first bout in 2007, I’ve fought off cancer eight times. I’m currently having radiation treatment after my ninth diagnosis. For me, the worst aspect is the ripple effect. Cancer doesn’t solely affect the patient – it hits family and friends too. It’s hateful having to tell my nearest and dearest each time the disease comes back.
But I’m still here. Incredible advances in medicine mean that treatments are improving all the time. Prognoses are increasingly positive and more women now survive. What doctors want is to change cancer from being a potentially deadly disease to a chronic illness. I am a living example of that concept. My children have a 50 per cent chance of carrying the BRCA1 gene, but I live in hope that new treatments will mean they won’t ever have to fight the way I have. Even better, I’d love to see a vaccine to prevent BRCA1 carriers from developing the disease in the first place.
EMMA’S COPING STRATEGIES
1 If tastebuds are acting up, try jelly babies. I normally hate them but they were delicious when I was having chemotherapy.
2 Gentle exercise is the best antidote to fatigue. I’m not exactly fit, but 20 minutes of walking can work wonders.
3 Laugh – just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can’t giggle. In fact, it should be mandatory every day.
4 Be kind to yourself. A tiny treat can make all the difference, whether it’s renting a movie or buying a bar of chocolate. It’s the little things that help.
5 Talk – never underestimate the healing power of a conversation.
6 Smile – apparently it takes 43 muscles to frown and 17 to smile.
7 Never lose hope – that’s just not allowed.
The question I’m asked time and again is how I’ve managed to remain the glass-half-full gal I’ve always been. First, I had amazing support. My family and friends are always there in practical ways, such as helping with the children, and I’ve never once felt I had nobody to turn to. It’s crazy to say that we are all accustomed to my cancer by now, but that’s the truth. Together we’ve learnt to put our trust in the wonderful medical people who look after me. I ask a lot of questions of my doctors and they are always incredibly frank and helpful with their answers. Knowledge is power and power helps disperse much of the fear. I compare it to someone having diabetes or epilepsy: you just learn to live with it.
Secondly, while I was confined for days on end to either a hospital bed or the oncology unit, instead of going insane, I began writing – and discovered that this is what I was born to do. It’s the missing link I was searching for when I trained as a chef, then studied to be a beauty therapist and finally ended up working in the family engineering firm. Now I can get lost in the world and the characters I’m creating.
I also have the privilege of being invited to speak at all sorts of events, from medical to corporate to community-based, where I can share my experience with others. I cannot emphasise enough the power of talking. Silence breeds fear, and by sharing my story I can offer hope. I can point out that my case was very unusual, that it’s incredibly unlucky to have cancer nine times and that only approximately five per cent of cancers are genetic.
Obviously, my children’s questions about my illness have become more pointed as they’ve grown up. They are now 12 and 14, and I deal with them openly and honestly. Cancer is not a taboo subject in our house, so, if something’s on their mind, they discuss it. I don’t always know the answers, but we learn as we go along.
Things have evolved since my first diagnosis. The drugs are more specific. The side effects are lessening, and the outcomes and results are improving all the time. I can see it, so can my children. Yes, they see me being diagnosed repeatedly. But they also see me getting better. Had I been diagnosed 20 years ago, I doubt I’d still be here.
For now, I will soar through the next round of treatment. I am currently on a long-term chemotherapy drug called Avastin. This is not as invasive as some other chemotherapy medicines and it helps to protect my organs from the spread of cancer. I have some tumours on the right side of my neck so I’ve started five weeks of radiation therapy, too.
I will continue to do the school run, yell from the sideline at hockey and rugby matches. I’ll cook dinners, iron clothes and walk the dog. I will create new characters for my books, get to know them and decide their fate. I’ll think about the future and plan ahead. Everyone’s life is full of ups and downs. We all have issues to deal with. Mine just happens to be cancer.
My son has recently taken part in a radio campaign that involved dyeing his hair for sponsorship. (He pitched the idea to his school headmaster first!) When I collected him from the hairdresser, his hair was bright purple. ‘I hate this colour,’ he admitted with a grin. ‘But cancer patients often don’t have a choice about how they look. So I figured that I could put up with looking a bit odd for a few weeks. If I’d chosen a colour I like, it wouldn’t mean as much.’
If you’ve just been diagnosed, or you know someone who has, please take heart from my story. Cancer is not always a death sentence. More and more people survive.
I am living proof that cancer doesn’t always win. It has invaded my body but I will never allow it to invade my mind. I don’t lie awake at night contemplating my death. Cancer doesn’t define me. It’s merely a part of my life, and I’ve no intention of going anywhere for quite some time.
If YOU want to follow my fight against Cancer from when it started and I first presented with symptoms in 1998 see The TAB at the Header of this Blog. called >DIARY of Cancer ….< just click and it will give you a long list of the main events in chronological order, many linked to specific blog postings.
Thoughts, articles and comments will be in chronological order in the main blog and can be tracked in the >ARCHIVE< in the Left Sidebar.
You may find the TABS >MEDICAL LINKS< and also >CANCER LINKS< of help, also many of the links in articles and >HOT LINKS< in the Sidebar.
YOU are welcome to call me, minded that I am NOT medically trained, if you believe I can help in ANY way. .
Posted by: Greg Lance-Watkins