Monday 26 September 2016

Emma Hannigan: 'Bouncing back from cancer nine times has made me realise that life is precious'

Published 05/05/2015 | 02:30

Emma Hannigan - 'life is precious'. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Emma Hannigan - 'life is precious'. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Bouncing back from cancer nine times - especially after you've taken precautions by undergoing a double mastectomy and having both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed - would leave even the most optimistic despondent. But mum-of-two Emma Hannigan has found that life is precious, and sometimes even the smallest of things can make the world of difference

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What would you do if you were told there was an 85pc chance you could become extremely ill? So ill that you could potentially die?

That's exactly the scenario I was presented with back in 2005. I discovered I carry the Brca1 cancer gene.

Many of you will be familiar with this gene since Angelina Jolie raised its profile when she spoke out and told the world of its existence.

Emma Hannigan - 'life is precious'. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Emma Hannigan - 'life is precious'. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

I applaud her for doing so.

She could've said nothing and carried on with her life. Nobody would've known either way. But instead she used her celebrity status to explain what it is and as a result she's managed to educate people and raise awareness, which is a wonderful thing.

But I think it's important to point out that this gene is rare and only approximately 5pc of cancers are genetic.

Back to 2005 when I was told I carried this gene I was offered two options: to be monitored while sitting and waiting for cancer to strike, or go for radical surgery to reduce my risk to 5pc. I chose to have the operations.

'The Secrets We Share' by Emma Hannigan
'The Secrets We Share' by Emma Hannigan

So in 2006 I had a double mastectomy and both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

It was an easy decision for me - I didn't see it as a negative thing - I never have. Instead I viewed it as an opportunity to enhance my chances of survival. I had two small children who needed a mother. Nothing else mattered.

But I honestly thought I would walk away from all things cancerous after that. Alas, that wasn't to be. In 2007, less than six months after my breast reconstruction surgery, cancer struck for the first time.

I found two small lumps in my neck and a strange rash appeared on my face and upper torso. After one doctor told me I should go home and count my blessings, that there was clearly nothing wrong bar my "over-active imagination", I sought a second opinion.

I went to see Dr Cal Condon who instantly biopsied the lumps in my neck and diagnosed an autoimmune disease. It turned out I had been harbouring pre-cancer cells in the tissue of my left breast. So those nasty cells had spread to my lymph nodes and developed into cancer in my neck, shoulder cavity and under my arm.

Dr Condon referred me to Dr David Fennelly who has looked after me ever since. I had chemotherapy and further surgery.

So how did I feel at that point?

Well, I was in the zone. I knew I had a very high risk of developing cancer, so I'd be lying if I said I was surprised with the diagnosis. But I felt like banging my head against the nearest wall. I'd gone to so much trouble to avoid cancer and it struck anyway.

I'm philosophical about it to this day. If I hadn't opted for surgery and if I'd never known about the gene, odds are I wouldn't be alive today. When my cancer was diagnosed it was early stages. So it was treatable.

That's the bottom line with a cancer diagnosis actually. I know the only questions I had were whether it was treatable and whether I would survive. In my case the answers to those all-important questions have always been yes.

The fact I see myself as being lucky may sound odd or even trite especially when I tell you that since 2007 I have been diagnosed with and beaten cancer a grand total of nine times.

'I applaud Angelina Jolie for raising the profile of the Brca1 gene. As a result she managed to educate people and raise awareness' - Emma Hannigan
'I applaud Angelina Jolie for raising the profile of the Brca1 gene. As a result she managed to educate people and raise awareness' - Emma Hannigan

But the reason I am lucky is that the type of cancer I get is very sensitive to treatment. So the chemotherapy and radiation work for me.

I am anxious that anyone reading this understands that I am not braver or better at beating cancer than anyone else. That's not what it's all about. It's about the advances in medicine, pure and simple.

I have tried numerous diets over the years - some whacky and some that appeared to make sense. But none of them cured my cancer or even prevented it from returning. So I am now of the opinion, that leading a healthy life and doing things in moderation are where it's at.

There was a time, probably about three years ago, that I became obsessed with books that promised to rid me of my cancer. I read them all. I believed what the authors were saying and one by one, I followed their diets. Maybe what they wrote about worked for them.

They didn't work for me and I have gone back to the habits I was raised with. Healthy food, all cooked from scratch, plenty of fresh air and a bit of exercise (which I hate!). In short, all things in moderation.

I guess I've become quite good at handling cancer diagnoses. I haven't had a choice.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't frighten the living daylights out of me. I look at my husband and especially my children and all I want is to live. I suppose I'm no different to any mum out there.

I trust my oncologist Dr David Fennelly. His team of nurses are astonishing and I owe them my life.

As I write this I am lying in bed. It's early evening and I've just returned from a day of chemotherapy. I have treatment every three weeks even though I am currently clear of cancer.

The drug I receive is one of the newer types of chemotherapy that helps to protect the body and although it doesn't prevent the cancer from returning, it's keeping things at bay.

I have seen such incredible advances in treatments over the past 10 years and I know for a fact that there is so much hope for cancer patients.

My children have a 50pc chance of carrying the Brca1 gene. They can't be tested until they're 18 though. So that still gives us a few years grace.

I'm pinning my hopes on continuing advances and new ways of dealing with genetics, should they discover they are carriers. Any parent on this earth will admit that we all worry about our children endlessly. That's natural. So I try not to fixate on this one particular point.

I've come to the conclusion that fixating on cancer isn't going to help me or my children. Instead I choose to soldier on and keep cancer in the shadows. After all, what's the point in fighting to stay alive and allowing the cancer to ruin our happiness?

I am often asked how I've remained positive over the years. I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve. The first one is that I make myself feel good on the outside. I know that phrase that beauty is only skin deep. But it's not about whether or not I look like a model, because I know I don't. It's about making oneself feel good.

I've drawn on my beauty therapy training in recent years. I look after my skin and hair and I adore fashion and make-up.

One of the things that used to bring me down when I began cancer treatment was how dull and grey my skin looked. I'm a demon for fake tan. I have typically Irish skin that doesn't go brown so I gave up trying.

Instead, I plaster myself in factor 50 and all my bronzing comes from a bottle. I stumbled upon TanOrganic a couple of years ago and it was the answer to my prayers!

The skin is our largest organ so it makes sense for a cancer patient to be wary of coating it with chemicals. Let's face it nobody should cover themselves in harmful ingredients. TanOrganic is what the name states - it's organic and free of anything nasty. I really fell in love with this product while I was having radiation.

The radiation has to travel through the skin to hit the cancer cells so many patients end up with burns. That can't be avoided.

But lots of skin creams become forbidden during this time. The ones that usually give a lovely glow often contain metal particles. Those particles heat up during radiation and literally fry the skin.

The other way I've managed to stay sane is by writing. I started to write from my hospital bed in 2007. I had never envisaged being an author yet out of the blue and quite by chance, I realised my calling in life.

Some folks find God, I found books. My 10th book, The Secrets We Share, was released this month and I still can't quite believe the path my life has taken.

On paper my story is extraordinary. I would forgive people for thinking my life is hard. Having cancer nine times wouldn't be any sane person's idea of fun.

I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I love my life. I'm happily married for almost 17 years. We have two divine teenagers (who only speak to us when they need money and or a lift somewhere) and both my husband and I have jobs we adore.

My journey with cancer has led me to places I never dreamt I would go. I've travelled the country talking to people, I appear regularly on TV and radio, I write articles like this one for newspapers and magazines. Who knew any of that would happen?

Cancer is a nasty and awful disease. It still claims far too many lives. But medical science is chasing it and more often than before, cancer is being wiped out.

People like me are surviving. I would urge anyone who has just been diagnosed to have hope. I know it's scary and I know it's not what anyone would wish for. But life is full of ups and downs.

Everybody has to face adversity at some point or another. That's the way it goes.

For now, I am adamant that I will keep going until I'm told not to. I will keep on writing, laughing and enjoying my family and friends. I will force myself to go on my cross trainer machine because it stops me from being so wobbly that my jeans won't close.

I will make myself go to the swimming pool because it's "good for me." I will frolic with the dog on the beach even though it embarrasses my kids. I will continue to spend every cent I earn on things I don't really need. In short, I will appreciate every day I get to stay alive.

If I have learned nothing else, it's that life is precious. It's up to each and every one of us to make the most of what we've been given. There's so much to be happy about.

If you're dealing with a tough situation right now, take each day as it comes and learn to look at things in a positive way. Ask for help and give it back. Talk and learn to be a good listener.

But most of all, remember to smile and laugh and joke. We only get one shot at life, so why not throw everything we've got at it?

I'm off to do something that is probably illegal in the heads of the purists - I'm off to eat a bar of chocolate. Why? Because I'll enjoy every morsel! Besides, I'll be in the pool tomorrow morning attempting to beat it off my thighs!

As my granny used to say "you may as well enjoy yourself. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow."

On that note, my bar of chocolate is calling!

Love and light , Emma x

'The Secrets We Share' by Emma Hannigan, published by Hachette Books Ireland is out now.

Emma Hannigan is a brand ambassador for Tan Organic, who donate 50c from every bottle to cancer research.

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