Thursday 27 October 2016

Emma Hannigan who survived cancer ten times: How to support a loved one through their cancer journey

Family and close friends can be just as terrified as the cancer patient, but they have a vital role to play in making their loved one feel normal again. Emma Hannigan shares what helped her get through her 10 treatment cycles

Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30

Emma Hannigan - the best thing we can do is stick together and mind one another
Emma Hannigan - the best thing we can do is stick together and mind one another
Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is definitely up there as one of the most shocking things that has ever happened to me. At least it was the first time around. Now as I'm coming to the end of treatment for the 10th diagnosis, I'm less shocked and more philosophical about the whole thing.

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I can't say I've skipped through the whole thing and walked away without any scars. I have plenty of both the physical and emotional type. How could I be any different? But the important thing is that I'm still here and I fully intend crawling out of the ashes and rising to full health again.

I'm pretty shattered at the moment. I'm almost bald, I look fairly pasty and awful. I guess I can safely say that I look sick. To add insult to injury, instead of being string bean thin, which I ought to be as I can barely eat, I'm bloated like a whale and as a result, have taken to wearing stretchy clothing. Things like leggings and floaty tops are far more attractive to me than fitted dresses or the number one enemy of my current pot tummy status - jeans. Right now I cannot imagine falling in love with or being able to fit into my jeans ever again.

I am hoping against hope that once the steroids, chemotherapy, anti-nausea medicine and other plethora of drugs stop I might deflate like a punctured party balloon. Suffice it to say, I've learned a lot over the last decade as I've raged my own personal war against cancer. I've become familiar with things such as white blood cell counts, platelet levels, magnesium levels and how much protein is in my urine. Nice, isn't it? Well, they're the main concerns as each round of chemotherapy is allowed to go ahead, so they've become my obsession too.

But most of my nearest and dearest aren't in on the blood levels chats with the nurses. Nor do they need to know about my liver enzymes or indeed how much my potassium has dropped. All that stuff is medical jargon and on a need to know basis.

What has always concerned my family and friends, and I know all the loved ones of cancer patients are the same, is how they can help. People are inherently good and kind and want to do all they can to lighten the load when a loved one is going through cancer.

I've seen it demonstrated in so many ways over the years. I am in no doubt that the pulse of human empathy and kindness is beating strongly through our communities. But often people don't know what to do to help.

So I've wracked my brains to come up with a little guide that I hope might be useful if someone you know is going through breast cancer treatment.

1 Listen

That may sound blatantly obvious but sometimes, especially when we're scared and worried, we need someone to talk to. Not so they can necessarily fix things. A problem shared is a problem halved and all of that.

2 Offer Practical help in a specific way

Instead of saying "call me if you need anything" offer something concrete such as doing the school run every Monday. Or say you'll drop in some dinner on Wednesday. That way she knows that's one chore definitely off the list.

3 Don't be afraid to talk about other stuff

I swiftly get sick of being sick, so when a friend calls over or phones and tells me about their day or what's going on in their world it makes me feel more normal. Even if I'm too ill to go out and join in with things, at least I don't feel isolated from everything that's happening.

4 Channel your sense of humour

There's enough misery involved with cancer what with hospital visits and the seriousness of treatment. So laughing and having a bit of fun becomes more vital than ever before. Don't be afraid to pack your sense of humour when visiting a patient.

5 If you or your children have coughs or colds, stay away

Cancer patients have compromised immune systems and although I've never advocated wrapping myself in cotton wool, I know that avoiding infection makes sense. Common coughs and colds can lead to dangerous chest infections really quickly, so keep your snuffles to yourself.

6 Offer to go for a walk

Exercise is vital during cancer treatment. I know I've had days when I can't move, but I always try to walk - even for 15 minutes. Fresh air and movement are the best ways to combat fatigue. Those minutes can fly by in company.

7 Send a mobile therapist over

If you're looking to treat a lady who is going through cancer, organise for a beauty therapist (rather than a psychotherapist) to call to her house and do her nails or a facial. This might sound like an odd idea, but speaking from experience this is magical. There's nothing nicer than having a lovely hand massage and freshly painted nails to brighten your day and make you feel feminine again.

8 Instead of sending her flowers, send an audio book

Many of the newest and classic titles are now available for download For just over €25 you can purchase a three-month gift membership in which time your lady can listen to all sorts of stories. Many patients don't have the concentration to read but can happily listen to a story on their smart phone, tablet or laptop.

9 Teach her how to shop online

I never needed any guidance when it comes to shopping of any kind. I was born with an inbuilt sensor that means I can shop even at my lowest ebb! But knowing how to order groceries online can be a Godsend. The deliveryman will carry everything into the kitchen cutting out all the stress and heavy lifting while still making you feel as if you're doing your shopping. Needless to say, buying clothing and little treats is a must too. At least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

10 Don't forget she's still the same person

This is something that might sound a little trite. But the to-ing and fro-ing from the hospital, the medication, the sickness, the looking green like Yoda and feeling dreadful, can sometimes make a patient seem as if they've changed. But inside, she is still your mum, sister, granny, friend or daughter. She still likes and dislikes the same things and hopefully she'll be back to the way she was soon.

I hope some of the tips above will help. There's no right or wrong way to cope with breast cancer. But I know from experience that the best thing we can do is stick together and mind one another. Once we do that, we can take on the world, one step at a time.


Breast Cancer Awareness Month

About breast cancer

• According to the most recent figures from the National Cancer Registry in Ireland, in 2013 a total of 2,983 people received a breast cancer diagnosis.

• The vast majority of women with breast cancer are aged between 50-64 (40pc)

• The numbers of breast cancer survivors are increasing with 85pc of those with a breast cancer diagnosis now living 5 years and beyond

* Money raised for the Irish Cancer Society's Paint it Pink campaign will help provide services to support people through their cancer journey. Visit or call 1850 60 60 60 for fundraising idea. You can also donate by texting 'Pink' to 50300 to give €4 to the Irish Cancer Society

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