Thursday 29 September 2016

'There was no cure when my mother lost her battle with cancer, but now there is hope' - chef Neven Maguire

Arlene Harris

Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30

Neven with his late mother, Vera Maguire, whom he credits with teaching him to cook. Photo. Colm Connaughton.
Neven with his late mother, Vera Maguire, whom he credits with teaching him to cook. Photo. Colm Connaughton.
Neven Maguire with Ann Marie Richards, who battled lung cancer

His friendly manner, delicious food and easy-to-follow recipes have made Neven Maguire a national treasure, but he credits all his success to his mother Vera, who died in 2012 from lung cancer.

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Chef Neven might be lauded the island over for his culinary prowess, but, he says, the credit is misplaced. The real root of his talent, he says, was Vera. So when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, he says, it was "a total bombshell".

"My mother was a huge influence on my life and my career; in fact I wouldn't even have been a chef if it wasn't for her," he says.

"She was a fantastic mother who also taught me to cook at a very early age and I loved nothing more than helping her to bake flapjacks or create different sauces. She was renowned for her cooking and in the 25 years we worked together in Macnean House, we never fell out.

Neven Maguire with Ann Marie Richards, who battled lung cancer
Neven Maguire with Ann Marie Richards, who battled lung cancer

"She was kind, affectionate and hard-working and I hope I have inherited some of those traits."

Maguire says his mother tried every treatment for the disease, without success. "She had amazing faith and wasn't afraid of dying as, having lost my dad many years previously, she was looking forward to being with him again," he says.

The Cavan chef is speaking ahead of a special food festival he is hosting in Dublin's Clontarf Castle on September 1, the proceeds of which will be donated to Target Lung Cancer.

"Cancer is an awful disease which literally eats away at you and it's so frightening for both the person who is suffering and their loved ones," Maguire says.

"We were all distraught when my mother died, but we were also comforted by the fact that she had no regrets - she loved her children and her grandchildren with all her heart and always spent time with the family.

"There was no cure for my mother but now there are so many new treatments available and so much hope out there for people who have been diagnosed with any sort of cancer. It's important that people who are newly diagnosed realise there is a lot to be positive and hopeful about."

Neven Maguire has opened up about his mother's death
Neven Maguire has opened up about his mother's death

Dubliner Ann Marie Richards presents a very different face of the disease. Traditionally believed to be a disease contracted only by smokers and older people, Ann Marie was 29 when she contracted lung cancer 10 years ago.

"I have never smoked so wouldn't have considered myself to be in danger from any sort of respiratory problems," says the 39-year-old. "But 10 years ago after returning from a year in Australia, my boyfriend noticed that I seemed a bit wheezy. I couldn't hear it and certainly didn't feel short of breath but as he is asthmatic, he nagged me for weeks to get it checked out so I finally went to see my GP."

The Dublin woman expected her doctor to say she was just a little out of shape after her travels, so was surprised when she was sent for an X-ray.

"After listening to my chest, my GP said she didn't think I had asthma but referred me for an X-ray as she could hear something unusual," Richards says. "Because I still didn't think it was anything serious, I didn't go to hospital for a further two weeks and then was more worried about contracting MRSA than receiving negative results." Not long after the X-ray was taken, Richards received a call from her GP to see if she had medical insurance. "I told her I had and she proceeded to tell me that the scan showed a big shadow on my lungs. This still didn't ring any alarm bells, even though she said she was referring me to a consultant who had agreed to see me a few days later."

Because of her age and the fact that she had never smoked a cigarette in her life, Richards was pretty confident that there couldn't be much wrong with her chest. However, after several scans and a biopsy, she was told that the shadow was actually a tumour.

"Doctors told me they had discovered a tumour on my lung and it seemed as if I was in the very small minority of people who developed lung cancer without ever having smoked," she says.

Chef Neven Maguire, wife Amelda and their now four-year-old twins Lucia and Connor Photo: Marc O'Sullivan.
Chef Neven Maguire, wife Amelda and their now four-year-old twins Lucia and Connor Photo: Marc O'Sullivan.

"There was never any cancer in my family so even then I didn't realise what a big deal this diagnosis was - it was only when the doctors did more tests and discovered that firstly the cancer had spread to my lymph glands and secondly it was an aggressive stage 3A, that I began to understand how serious my condition was," says Richards.

Because the cancer had already spread to other parts of her body she needed to start chemotherapy immediately and in July 2005, at the age of 29, she underwent her first round of treatment.

Buoyed up by support from friends and family and the positivity of her medical team, Richards says she sailed through - despite feeling pretty horrific throughout.

"I didn't have time to really process what was going on as I was floating on a cloud of positive energy from my wonderful family, friends and doctors," she says.

"Of course, the chemo made me feel horrendous but I was lifted out of everything by the amount of people willing me to get better.

"The treatment worked really well and my tumour shrunk by 50pc, so having finished the last round in September, I went into hospital in November for surgery which would remove the rest of the tumour.

"I was unprepared for the reality of how I would feel afterwards and was very sick and in a lot of pain - I must have looked an awful sight too (yellow skin, no hair and just a bag of bones from all the weight I had lost) because my brother fainted when he came to visit me in the hospital and my mother started to cry."

Richards spent two months recuperating after her operation and went home just before Christmas but had to go back a few days later as she developed an infection. Once this was cleared, she went on to have a six-week course of radiation - which would eventually eradicate the cancer from her lung.

But her problems didn't end there.

"I started radiotherapy in January of 2006 and after all I had been through, this was really easy," she says. "Then in August, I was told that I was in remission and went back to work [in Dublin City Council] in December.

"I was in great form and felt I didn't have to worry about anything as I had regular scans and check-ups to ensure everything was okay. But towards the end of 2007, a routine scan revealed multiple brain tumours.

"I was utterly shocked as I didn't have any symptoms at all and wouldn't have known there was anything wrong if I hadn't gone in for the scan.

"My initial reaction was to run away from it all and I went to Galway for a few days to escape from the reality of it - but a friend of a friend, who is a doctor, talked to me about my options and calmed me down enough to get on with the next step."

This involved telling her parents and family the devastating news and going ahead with treatment, which required surgery on her brain followed by a gruelling programme of radiotherapy on the tumours which were too difficult to reach during the operation.

"After the surgery on my lung (which I discovered has the most painful recovery process) the brain surgery was very straight forward and I was out in 10 days," she says.

"The radiotherapy however was horrific stuff as it involved two minutes of 'burning' the cells in my head every day for six weeks. I felt awful both during and after it and lost a lot of weight, but eventually I got back on my feet."

This, however, was not the end of Richards' suffering as a few years later; it was revealed that she had tumours on her spine.

"It took about 18 months for me to recover from this ordeal and in the January of 2010, I went back to work," says the 39-year-old. "I was doing fine and getting stronger all the time but in August of 2012, I began to notice an intolerable pain in my back and the only thing which would relieve it was heat.

"I went to the GP and back to the hospital and after several tests it was discovered in December that I had a tumour on my spine and because of all of the radiotherapy I had gone through in the past, my treatment options were limited.

"However, luckily there was a new drug which had been licenced in the US and was being tested in Ireland so in early 2013, I was given the go ahead to trial it.

"It involves taking a tablet twice a day every day which targets the cancer cells directly. I have been on this medication for three years now and the results have been amazing. I am back working full-time again and getting on with my life."

Richards believes her story shows that cancer can affect anyone - and that with advances in research and treatment, a diagnosis like hers can have a happy ending.

"I have always had a positive outlook and even though my 30s were taken over by cancer, I was so lucky to have had all the amazing people who supported me down the years," she says. "They say it takes a village to raise a child, well I had a village worth of care and support to get me better."

* Neven's Food Festival is on Thursday September 1 at Clontarf Castle. Tickets costs €20 and 100pc of proceeds go to Target Lung Cancer appeal. For more information visit nevenmaguire.eventbrite.com or call 01 410 4766

How to spot lung cancer

1. A cough that doesn't go away or a change in a long-term cough.

2. Feeling short of breath or wheezing.

3. Repeated chest infections even after antibiotics.

4. Coughing up blood-stained phlegm.

5. Chest pain, especially when coughing or breathing in.

6. Feeling more tired than usual and/or unexplained weight loss.

7. Hoarse voice, problems swallowing or swelling in the face or neck.

* For more information, see supportstjames.ie/fundraising-appeals/target-lung-cancer; cancer.ie/lung.

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