Monday 24 October 2016

Touching the void - When women are there for each other through cancer

Elle Gordon

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

Norah Casey with her mother Mags. Photo: Barry McCall.
Lynn Kelly with her grandmother Anne Kelly. Headband, Topshop. Photo: Barry McCall
Vivienne Connolly with her mum, Liz. Vivienne wears: dress, Warehouse. Photo: Barry McCall.
Elaine Crowley with her mother Mary V Crowley. Photo: Barry McCall.

Cancer is the word no one wants to hear. It strikes dread and fear into sufferers and their friends and family. But the disease can also can bring out the best in people. As Breast Cancer Ireland prepares for this year’s Great Pink Run in the Phoenix Park, Elle Gordon talks to four pairs of women about how, when they were brought to their lowest ebb by cancer, the females in their family stepped up to the plate, and supported them through the tough times and the tears with unconditional love, comfort and companionship.

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Model and former Miss Universe Ireland


Cancer is a word that nobody, and I mean nobody, ever wants to hear, especially when it comes to a loved one. My nanny was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after my granddad passed away of a massive heart attack, in her arms, when he was just 56 years of age.

It was such a hard thing for anybody to handle.

I don't know anybody who hasn't been affected by cancer in some way, shape or form - if not personally, then through a friend or family member.

It is a devastating time for any family to go through, and I really do wish that in the future we can dramatically decrease the amount of people who have to suffer at its hand.

I don't think enough people are aware of how important early detection is. It can, quite literally, save your life. My nanny is a very proud lady, and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, from day one, it was never going to defeat her.

She would tell herself every single day that this wouldn't beat her - and it didn't. She worked all her life, and that didn't change when she was sick. She continued to work until she recently retired at 66. She is one of the bravest, most inspiring people I have ever met.

Moving in with my nanny when she was going through her treatment was never a conversation that needed to be had - it was just something that needed to be done, and that was it.

Nobody ever wants to see somebody go through treatment, but she never complained once. No matter how sick she was, she still got on with her life. We have always been a very close family and that will never change. Family, to me, is everything. I stayed living with my nanny after she was given the all-clear because we had formed such a close bond.

We are great friends; we go on holidays together, go out for lunch and drinks, have a gossip and even share clothes. She is a huge inspiration to me. I hope our relationship stays that way for many years to come

SN Lynn Kelly and Granny.jpg


Lynn's grandmother

I was widowed very suddenly the year before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I was diagnosed, Lynn was very much to the forefront for me. I have always been very close to Lynn. She kept me going a lot.

At the beginning, I didn't want to take treatment because I was grieving very badly for my husband, but my family is so important to me, and I thought to myself, 'I'll give it my best shot', so I did.

At the time, Lynn was quite a young girl. She was 11, maybe 12. She moved in shortly after I started treatment, and stayed with me quite a long time. It was love and comfort and companionship.

It went on for a complete eight years. I was diagnosed in 1998, and I wasn't discharged until 2006. It was hard. Having not wanted to take the treatment initially, when I sat down and thought about it, I decided I wasn't going to be afraid of it. I was going to think positive all the time. I think positivity will get you through an awful lot. I used to say, 'Ah, eff-off cancer, I don't want you'. Positivity is at least 50pc of your battle. Everyone reacts differently, but my family and my grandchildren were a huge part of my recovery. I decided I wanted to be around for them. I wanted to see how they were going to get on in life, and help them as much as possible.

Early detection is everything. I was managing a pub and restaurant in south Dublin and had been feeling dizzy one day. When I went home that night, I felt a little lump. There was a doctor beside where I worked, so I went into him the next day and he actually saw it. He sent me for a mammogram. It all happened very quickly.

Then I had a little scare in between, before the five years was up [and I should have been in the clear]. That meant I was eight years going. But, as I say, I was very positive right from the beginning. I had a routine. I would get a taxi into the hospital and have a cup of coffee, and get the bus back.

The day I was discharged, I couldn't talk, I couldn't walk, and I cried all the way home. I had to get a taxi; it was the relief. I called Lynn and I called everybody that day. I couldn't believe it.

Lynn was my rock, definitely. I probably would have got through it . . . but it was great to have my family, my children and grandchildren rally around me. Lynn is very strong-minded, grounded, and focused and she said to me, 'We will get through this'. It was a nightmare, but I'm still here to tell the tale, and all with the support of my family.

‘When I had postnatal depression, my mother was brilliant’


Vivienne Connolly with her mum, Liz


Model, actor and mum

I found a lump in my breast when I was 22. That was something that my mother was very much there for. When I found out, I was going away with my first boyfriend, and I was thinking, 'Oh my god'.

I didn't tell my mother until I came back, because I knew that she would worry. She is the rock in our family - as is our dad, in fairness to him, but just in a different way. I told her when I came back on the Wednesday, and I was booked in to have it removed on the Friday.

I'll never forget it. We were having lunch, and I just threw it out there because I didn't want to make a big deal of it. 'I have to go in to hospital on Friday to have a lump removed'. And Mum's reaction was, 'What?' I wanted to make little of it; I didn't want her to worry.

I went in that Friday and had it removed. I found out a few weeks later that it was fragmented, but benign. I'll never forget those words. Afterwards, Mum said, 'If that ever happens again, I want to know and be there to support you'.

Rolling on the years, my mum's sister, my aunt Marian, discovered she had breast cancer and had to have her breast removed, but, thank god, she's healthy now. It's there in our family, and something to be very aware of.

Mothers try to protect their daughter for years and years, but there comes a point where the daughter starts protecting the mother as well. Mum is the one who has always been behind my back. Everything she did for us was out of love.

She always used to say to us when we were younger, 'Mind yourself . . . I'm minding myself for you. I'm minding myself for when you are older so I'm still around'. You kind of go, 'Wow, that is so selfless'. She walks four miles every day; she's just incredible. It was all for us; it was all for her kids.

I come from a family of very strong women. It really is a case of you stand up for each other, because no one will support you like a family will. When I had postnatal depression, my mother was brilliant.

She told me that she had had a touch of it herself. It's funny the way it can hit. I hadn't known that of Mum, but she realised, seeing what I was going through, that that's exactly what she had had.

Sometimes you mightn't feel like talking, but you can just be 100pc yourself with your mum. With other people, you're trying to be in a good mood, because that's what they expect. With your mum, you can just sit down and cry, if that's what you want to do, and look like crap and be all you.

It is difficult, because you don't want to put your stuff on other people. Your family and your friends have their own stuff. But it's important to have at least one good person you can talk to. Definitely my mum was brilliant through those times.

She is a great listener; you could talk and cry to her all day long and she'd just listen. There are eight of us - three girls and five boys, and we nearly fight over her to be in her company. She is my rock and my best friend . . . she really is.


Vivienne's mum

When Vivienne told me she had found a lump in her breast, anything like that is very stressful. But you just have to think as positively as you can and be supportive in every way. Your first reaction is shock, and then you're trying to hide it. You just go along with it, and hope and pray that you are saying the right things and making the right decisions.

It isn't easy, but you can get through it. As with my sister, she had the breast removed and she's very positive and is in great health now. That was 13 years ago.

It was the women closest to me . . . a nightmare. How do you process it? You are in shock when you hear it, and you're trying not to let that be seen by them. They're trying to deal with the enormity of it themselves.

These things happen in life, and all I've got to do is be there for Vivienne and feel sorry for her as well. You want everything to work out properly, but it doesn't always go that way.

With Vivienne's postnatal depression, until it comes back to your own daughter, you forget, but I felt that after my last daughter. I could understand for her what it was like, and I knew then what she was going through because nobody can tell you, nobody understands you.

I am very proud of Vivienne and very proud of her two gorgeous children. She has me spoiled. The time we spend together, I love it. I absolutely love it.

We are going away together soon, and I just can't wait. The tough times strengthened us. As they say, life is like a box of chocolates - you've got so many variations. You never know your own strength; you don't know your capabilities until you are put to it.

‘I became pregnant with twins and lost them. But who put me back together? My mum’


Norah Casey with her mum, Mags


Broadcaster and publisher, chairwoman of Harmonia group

I was the first to leave the family at 17. I was the youngest, and I was a nurse and my mum was a nurse. I think the fact that I left built a really strong bond between us. I was very homesick in Scotland.

I would call her in floods of tears, wanting to come home, and she did that lovely reverse psychology, where she'd say, 'Love, come home. Get on the next boat and come home'. I would, of course, adopt the opposite stance and say, 'No. I'm going to see it out'.

I think because I spent more years away, myself and my mum made a huge effort to be together and to spend quality time together. I think when you live at home, you take that for granted a bit.

She became my closest person and my best friend. Before I had Darragh, my little miracle baby, I went through terrible IVF. Continually, it didn't work, and I became pregnant with twins and lost them. But who, of course, came charging over to London and put me back together? My mum.

She's always been a rock for me. She's always been the person who knows the right thing to say. She would always listen and hear what you have to say. When I was diagnosed with the phyllodes tumour, I was back in Ireland at the time, and commuting to London.

Darragh was very young. I felt a lot of lumps in my breasts. I went to see a locum as I was very worried about the lumps, and she told me that there was nothing wrong. I always think about that; I was the one who forced the issue there. I went into the Mater and got multiple lumpectomies and they saw this tumour against my chest wall. I was very lucky. They came back out to tell me that they were sending me back in to take part of my breast away, along with the tumour.

My Mum was, of course, always at hand. Richard [Hannaford, Norah's late husband]was working in the BBC in London and in Ireland back then. You know, my small little nucleus of a family was very fragile at that time; we were in the thrust of upheaval, so it was great to have somebody, my mum, my other half, to support us.

Cancer has affected my family, of course, and particularly with Richard. There are a few traits that you would want your mum to pass on. My father died shortly after Darragh was born, and I saw how amazingly strong she was and how she lived her life beyond the death of her husband. Many times during Richard's illness, she put me back together.

The day Richard was told, 'You should put your affairs in order' . . . to say that we fell apart . . . I could hardly drive. We went out to my mum, and I still don't know what magic she performed, but she put us back together. I still think about that day.

Mags Casey

Norah's mum

I remember the day they told me Richard had terminal cancer very well. Richard was a very special person. He was very kind. All of us were heartbroken. Words are not much good at a time like that. You don't know what the right words are. I certainly didn't, but I remember reaching my hand out to them. It was very emotional, and it's difficult to think back on. I don't know how long we sat there

Norah and I have a very close bond. It is a friendship. We meet regularly and go for lunch and have a couple of glasses of wine.

When Norah herself told me about her tumour in her breast, I was very apprehensive, and it was very scary. It was benign, and that wasn't too bad, but if it had been left, it might have been a different story. It was very scary. I just said the usual things . . . sometimes words can't express what you feel, you know. It was a very traumatic time. I was over and back from Ireland; they had a lot going on in their lives.

I remember she rang me to tell me about the results, and the relief, I suppose, was just 'Thank god that everything is alright and it's not malignant'. It's easy enough to organise a flight, and I would be there and look after Darragh and do the things that I think any mother would do.

Following this, the whole trauma and the loss of Richard took over our lives. Norah has a great ability to get on with things, but she's still not over Richard, and she's still grieving. She's very strong, Norah. All I wish for Norah is health and happiness. I always put health first, but health and happiness.

'I know, statistically, I will get cancer at some point in my life'


Elaine Crowley with her mother Mary V Crowley


Presenter and producer of TV3's 'Midday'

When my dad died of cancer, that really knocked us all for six, and Mum was in pieces after that. More recently, her best friend Liz died of breast cancer. It was hugely upsetting for her. It's awful to say, but so many people have passed that are close to her, all from different types of cancer. There has been a bit too much of it in my family for my liking.

I have a better understanding of cancer, I think, through my friend [the novelist]Emma Hannigan [who is currently going through cancer for the 10th time]. She's a very good friend of mine, and that's how I got involved in breast cancer Ireland, through Emma.

My dad, he never spoke about his own cancer. It's something that is very difficult to talk about, because you don't want to face your own mortality and you don't want to talk about what might happen, so that was very difficult.

I know the moment Dad passed away, my mother was in shock, because it never entered her head that he'd actually go. It was something they'd never spoken about, which, in hindsight, is ridiculous, but at the time, I suppose, your head is in a bit of a bubble.

So, to meet Emma and the way she talked about cancer was an eye-opener. When I met her, she was on cancer number six or seven, and she was so matter-of-fact. She said, 'If I don't talk about it, what other way am I going to do it?' That's why I am very passionate about Breast Cancer Ireland.

I know, statistically, I will get cancer at some point in my life. It's not a nice thing to say, but given the amount on both sides of my family, it probably will hit me. There is always that fear in the back of your head.

Some families can fragment when someone dies; some families can get closer together. We went home straight after Dad died and my mum went up to the bed, because it just hit her. I was hugging her, it could have been five minutes, it could have been three hours. I was just kind of rocking her on the bed like she was my baby, as opposed to I was hers.

Then, Mum dusted herself off and she tried to get on the best she could. It took a good few years, I'm not going to lie. Dad's death was utterly devastating for her. But then her best friend gets breast cancer, and the same thing happens over again. It was like history repeating itself, in a way. Sometimes I wonder how she gets out of the bed in the morning with so much pain. There are ten of us, so we keep her on her toes and entertained. But she has been through so much in her life. But she's still here and she's still with us, dusting herself off and getting on with it.

Yes, she annoys me like bejaysus sometimes, but, my god, I admire her so much as well. I've only gone through a fraction of what my mum has gone through. The love of her life died, which is terrible. And then her sister, her father, and her best friend - and that's only the tip of the iceberg. How does anyone go through that?

I'm surrounded by amazing women. I don't know why Breast Cancer Ireland asked me to be an ambassador because I don't feel worthy to be included with these amazing women. They have to live with it. The strength of some women just absolutely blows me away, and my mother would be foremost among them, and the bould Emma Hannigan.


Elaine's mum

When my husband passed away from cancer, all the family were with him. I didn't face it, because I was in denial. I knew it was cancer, I knew it was terminal, but you kind of get into a denial mode, and maybe some people cope better than I do.

I'm great when I'm needed and when I need to be strong. But I suffered afterwards because I didn't face it, and speak about it. That's why I think it's very important for anyone that has cancer, if they can, and if the people around them can cope, to talk about it. Some people don't talk about it because they think they're saving you from worrying. The more you speak openly about it, the better it is, and the easier it is.

I suppose every mother says this, but I couldn't ask for a better family. They rally around and they sense when they should be there and when to let go as well. They're always in the background, and you know if you're going to fall down any time, they will be there to lift you up. Elaine definitely was that person.

More recently, my best friend died from breast cancer; she was very glamorous and she loved her make-up and her style. Elaine always had bags and bags of make-up and she would visit, and they'd be comparing eyeliners, and Elaine would say, 'Oh you can have that'.

Elaine did a parachute jump for breast cancer shortly after Liz died, and Liz's death was one of the reasons she did it. When you know someone personally who has suffered from a terminal disease, you do your best for that cause then, because it has touched you. Liz was one of the family.

Elaine - her heart, it melts, and she has an amazing feeling for people, and empathy for people. She can sense it. She was there for me when her father was sick and she had my back all the time.

She has always been there in the background, and I knew I had someone that was stronger than myself at the time. If you have someone who understands, someone who you can talk to and who you can depend on, who you can be yourself with, and let go and kind of go to pieces when the ill person isn't there, that is important, and means a lot to people at the time.

Norah, Lynn, Elaine and Vivienne will take part in the Great Pink Run with Avonmore Slimline Milk which takes place on Saturday 27th August 2016 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin to raise funds for Breast Cancer Ireland's awareness and research programmes around the country. There will be a 10km Challenge at 10am or a 5km Family Fun Run at 10:40am. To register, go to

Photography by Barry McCall

Assisted by Dylan Madden

Styled by Liadan Hynes

Assisted by Eloise Powell

Make-up by Dearbhla Keenan, Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see and Eilis Downey, Sugar Cubed, 1A Westbury Mall, Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 672-5750, or see

Elaine Crowley's make-up by Make Up For Ever, 38 Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 679-9043, or see

Hair by Aidan Darcy and Hannah Owens at Sugar Cubed

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