How blogging has helped Eimear (31) cope with breast cancer: 'It has made me feel part of something bigger'
For the women sharing their cancer battles online, writing about their illness has helped them make sense of it all.
Published 05/08/2015 | 02:30
Last December, Eimear Coghlan had an enviable life. The 31-year-old was slim, blonde and had porcelain skin. She adored fancy dress parties, dancing, and music festivals, and had recently married a handsome Sicilian and settled down in London. But, one morning that month, her seemingly perfect life was turned upside down.
The Mallow native felt a lump in her breast. She went straight to the doctor and, after being referred to a clinic, was told she had two tumours. The clinic diagnosed stage 3 breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes, but said it was curable if she started treatment straight away.
Since then, Eimear has endured four months of chemotherapy, a seven-hour operation, and has just finished five weeks of radiotherapy. Two weeks after her first chemo session, Eimear's blonde locks began to fall out.
Many of us would be overwhelmed with self-pity with such a shattering diagnosis and gruelling treatment. Not Eimear. She shaved her head after the second round of chemo, and set about celebrating her bald head by taking photos of herself with different earrings and make up.
She searched online for other women who were embracing their baldness and when she couldn't find any, launched her own blog, Aheadwithstyle.com.
There, Eimear proudly posts glamorous selfies of her bald but beautiful head alongside gripping accounts of how she copes with the painful side effects of her cancer treatment.
"I wanted to be the inspiration I wished I'd had and to help other women," Eimear, now 32, says of her blog. "I wanted to do it my way so people wouldn't be pitying me, and saying 'oh, poor Eimear has cancer'.
"Cancer has given me this new purpose and blogging about it has made me feel part of something bigger."
Eimear is one of a growing number of young Irish women who are taking to the blogosphere and social media to chronicle their struggle with cancer.
While blogging often begins as a form of personal therapy for these women, they often find that it helps them connect with others coping with the same fate. By building up this community, they can speak freely with each other about what it means to be struck down with cancer at an age when they should be having the time of their lives.
Such blow-by-blow accounts of facing up to one's own mortality was once unheard of. Suffering from cancer used to be a private experience, whispered about among the victim's close family and friends, not disclosed in gory detail for strangers to consume.
But attitudes are gradually changing. The cancer memoir began in earnest in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the British journalists Ruth Picardie and John Diamond documented their respective struggles with cancer in UK newspapers.
Diamond, who was married to Nigella Lawson, wrote about his throat cancer in a column for The Times. Picardie's column about succumbing to breast cancer was published in the Observer and the pieces became a bestselling book called Before I Say Goodbye.
She died in 1997, aged 33.
With more young women sharing intimate details of their lives on social media and blogs, perhaps it's no surprise that even an illness like cancer becomes part of their online conversation.
This phenomenon recently came to the fore in May, when the BBC broadcast a feature-length adaptation of The C Word, the memoir of Lisa Lynch, a journalist who became one of the best-known cancer bloggers in the UK.
When Lynch was told she had breast cancer at the age of 28, she dubbed her disease 'The Bullshit' and declared on her blog, Alright Tit, that she was going to write her "way through the bullshit".
Her witty writing attracted an army of 140,000 followers in its first year and praise from Stephen Fry. But, despite her determination, Lynch was struck with secondary cancer and died in 2013, never having seen the actress Sheridan Smith portray her on screen.
Like Lynch, 33-year-old Ciara Brickley is doing her part to transform the way women think about cancer on her blog Foodfashionandthefight.ie. The Corkonian was enjoying a successful career working for an Irish food company in Madison, Wisconsin when she felt a lump in her breast in December.
"The first thought that came into my head was that I had a pulled a muscle because I was working out in the gym," Ciara says. "I hung onto that for a month. But, deep down, I had a feeling something was wrong because I was checking myself every morning and it was still there."
Ciara was due to come back to Ireland for a break over the Christmas holidays, so she waited until then so she could attend her own GP in Cork. He sent her straight to a breast clinic and she was diagnosed in January.
Within 10 days, she had travelled back to America to collect her belongings and her dog Lucy and had come home to undergo breast surgery. She finished chemo in early July and is soon starting radiotherapy and a clinical trial for Herceptin, the breast cancer drug.
Ciara began blogging in May to encourage women to examine their breasts for lumps and not to fear treatment.
"Breast cancer is always thought of as an older woman's disease," she says. "But just because you're not old enough to be in a screening programme doesn't mean it's not your responsibility to check your own body."
Ciara has blogged about subjects as disparate as how uncomfortable she finds wigs, the miracles of cosmetics for hiding under-eye circles or soothing dry, flaky skin, and even her favourite recipes.
"I studied food chemistry, I'm a big foodie and vegetarian, and I'm a complete shopaholic," she says. "I wanted people to see that this is still who I am even if I'm going through this awful disease.
"I've blogged about how I personify cancer as trying to take away my femininity from me and how I'm fighting that. The hair loss is part of it; you are on a lot of medications that bloat you so you lose your figure; my nails went black.
"I lost my eye lashes and my eyebrows. But at least it's been months since I've had to shave my legs!
"I don't have a social life and I've had to move back in with my mum and dad. Thank god for social media and blogging because I feel so connected to everybody.
"I've had a lot of people contact me through the blog; they let me know I'll get through it and pass on positive vibes. It's like you're not on your own anymore."
Sinéad Kavanagh, a 33-year-old primary school teacher from Dublin, is in the midst of a six-week honeymoon to Mexico and Florida. The trip is not just a lengthy celebration of her marriage to Dave O'Mahony, but the end of a long road through thyroid cancer. After being diagnosed in May 2013, she is now cancer-free.
"I warned everyone before the wedding speeches not to talk about cancer and they all did!" she says.
After two operations to remove her thyroid, Sinéad found herself off work for about a year. Keen to avoid sinking into depression after her diagnosis ("the most horrendous day of my life"), she busied herself by setting up The Beautiful Truth, a beauty and fashion blog interspersed with her cancer war stories.
"I threw a few personal posts in there, but I didn't want to make the blog all about cancer because it was my escape," she says. "It was a good way of clearing my mind and giving myself a focus.
"I put on a lot of weight when I was sick and any woman knows that can really knock you. The blog really helped my self-confidence and I got used to certain readers commenting."
One of the most candid cancer blogs of all was started by Deirdre Featherstone, a 50-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Clane, Co Kildare with her husband Jonas.
In 2012, Deirdre began blogging under the title Kicking The Shite Out of Cancer, the letters of which were emblazoned across the bare bums of breast cancer survivors who took part in the last Strip and Dip with her for charity off a Wicklow beach in June. The image was shared more than 100,000 times on Facebook.
The blog details all the pain, nausea, hair loss, and the dreaded vomiting Deirdre went through during chemo, as well as her mastectomy and breast reconstructions.
But while the disease may have temporarily stolen her health, it didn't take her sense of humour. There's a photo of her dressed up as Sinead O'Connor at a fancy dress party, where she told people that she might have shaved her head just for the event and it took her "ages to get the look just right".
She says: "When you are diagnosed, you want to speak to someone who has also gone through the same thing," she says. "These girls came out of nowhere when I began blogging and I call them my cancer chickies.
"In the world we live in now, with people on a computer or phone so much of the time, you don't have to get out of your sick bed to go to support meetings.
"You can log on to your computer, have a chat, and ask them questions you think your oncologist would regard as too silly. We've shared photos of our new breasts and we've chatted at four in the morning while off our heads on steroids.
"If I had a choice to go back again in life, I would still take the cancer path knowing I would be okay in the end."