Monday 24 April 2017

'It was such a shock hearing the word leukaemia - I'll have this for the rest of my life' - sisters Rachel and Roz Purcell open up about life-changing diagnosis

When her sister Rachel developed chronic myeloid leukaemia, Roz Purcell realised that family means everything

Roz and Rachel Purcell are supporting Ballygowan’s cancer campaign. Photo: David Conachy
Roz and Rachel Purcell are supporting Ballygowan’s cancer campaign. Photo: David Conachy
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

It really used to drive Rachel Purcell mad when she was a teenager and her younger sister Rozanna robbed her clothes. Then Roz became a model and entered the world of fashion, so PR executive Rachel can now exact her revenge by borrowing from her sister's wardrobe.

"She goes on holiday and when I see her Instagram story, she's basically in all of my stuff," laughs Roz. "We had vicious fights over tops and tan growing up, and I'll never forget the day poor Dad went into town to buy us tan because we had such a bad fight over it. We'd be kicking each other and tearing each other apart so we were always covered in bruises. Everyone always says that Rachel is the nice, sweet one, but when our boxing coach asks us to spar, I say no, because she won't be afraid to hit me - she'll really go for it."

She's teasing, of course, because Rachel (29) and Roz (26) get on famously and are best friends who live together in Dublin with their dog Wilko. They grew up on a farm outside Clonmel in Tipperary, and have an older sister Rebecca (34). They're really close to her too and to their parents, John and Cecily.

Their mum bred National Hunt horses and was also a teacher and school principal. She taught Roz for four years, but there was no danger of her being class pet. "I was the boldest in the class, so the other kids in school kind of respected that," she says. "I was a really rebellious child, and poor Mum had to deal with that at home too." The girls recall having great fun on the farm, playing cowboys and Indians with the ponies and larking around on the hay bales. They weren't allowed do that, of course, and when Rachel fell from the top of the bales one day, Roz was more concerned over them being caught than whether her sister was injured.

Roz Purcell, pictured with sister Rachel, in Thailand at Christmas
Roz Purcell, pictured with sister Rachel, in Thailand at Christmas

"We used to chase each other so fast around the house that we pushed each other through glass windows," says Roz. "People always told me at school how beautiful Rachel was. She had long black hair and was really tall and slim, whereas I had crazy, wild hair and was obsessed with basketball."

Rachel studied marketing in Waterford and then went to Toronto for two years. The sisters really missed each other while they were apart, and Rachel missed her family too much to stay away longer. She now works as a digital marketing account manager with Edelman PR, and also helps Roz out with her food website, Natural Born Feeder. Roz, of course, is one of the most sought-after models in the country and she came in the top 10 in Miss Universe 2010.

"Roz is really outgoing and confident," says a proud Rachel. "She has such a good personality and is great with new people, whereas I'm quieter and shy away from things. She also cooks and bakes for me, which is always a good thing."

The sisters have become involved with Ballygowan's new campaign to support increased cancer awareness and fund vital cancer support services. From now until August, the biggest-selling Ballygowan lines will feature a special gold label, and a donation for every bottle sold will be made to help the Irish Cancer Society in its mission to achieve a future without cancer in Ireland.

The reason the Purcell sisters became involved is that they saw the amazing impact these services had when Rachel was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia last year. A slow-growing and rare cancer, CML affects the body's ability to produce myeloid cells, which in turn affects the bone marrow's production of infection-fighting white blood cells. It isn't curable, but CML is a disease that people can live with throughout their lives.

Rachel was diagnosed after blood tests were taken because she was feeling exhausted. "It was such a shock hearing the word 'leukaemia', but luckily CML is completely manageable and I just get on with it," she says. "I'll have it for the rest of my life, so I take medication every day and that stabilises it. It took a little while to feel better, but now I feel like my energy is completely back and I'm feeling good. I'm in St James's Hospital on a regular basis to have check-ups, and you see other people there with cancer, some of whom are terminal. The Irish Cancer Society is so helpful, giving them advice and someone to talk to, so I've seen first-hand the difference it makes."

Roz and Rachel. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Roz and Rachel. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Roz and Rachel. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Roz says she "completely freaked out" when her lovely, gentle sister was diagnosed. "I didn't deal well with the situation," she says. "Rachel is really strong, and she has dealt with it so well. I was a really stressed person before this happened, but it makes you stop worrying about trivial things, the main things are family and our dog now." Rachel says that Roz was a great support to her, and she really lives her life these days. The sisters go out of their way to spend more time with their family, and they get on great with each other's friends and boyfriends too - Rachel actually previously lived with Roz and her former boyfriend Bressie. Roz is now dating music promoter Zach Desmond, and they're away in Paris this week with Rachel and her boyfriend Stephen. "We aren't really couple-y girls though," says Roz in mock horror. "We wouldn't go around holding hands with our boyfriends or anything!"

Funding raised through the sale of Ballygowan's gold label bottles will go towards supporting the Irish Cancer Society's Night Nursing service, 13 Daffodil Centres and Cancer Nurseline 1800 200 700. www.cancer.ie

Roz Purcell and her sister Rachel. Picture: Instagram
Roz Purcell and her sister Rachel. Picture: Instagram
Roz Purcell and her sister Rachel. Picture: Instagram
Roz Purcell and her sister Rachel. Picture: Instagram

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