'It was a bit of a crap way to find out that you had cancer'
Just days before Christmas three years ago, my sister Sammy had surgery for breast cancer. She then went home to Castle Leslie just in time to host the annual festive drinks party
INTERVIEWING your own sister might seem a tad weird. But my sister Sammy battled with cancer three years ago. Not many people know that.
Sammy is in the public eye because she runs Castle Leslie in Monaghan. But as a person, she is intensely private. This explains the fact that it has taken three years for her to let anyone outside a small circle of family and friends know what she has been going through. And it explains something of why I am only really sitting down now with her to talk about it all.
Sammy is not reluctant to talk about it. In fact, she is keen. It's just the privacy thing. And for myself, well, I have gone through all the emotional reactions you would expect when your sister is stricken so cruelly – anger, sadness, despair even, feelings that sometimes made me feel a little unworthy when contrasted with Sammy's courage and resolve. As we spoke, I was hoping for a little more, something useful, more constructive. Some insight, maybe.
We decided to go for drinks one evening last week. We talked about everything for a few hours. Everything but cancer, that is. Then she met some friends from the movie Price of Desire, in which she played the part of Gertrude Stein – "a part I wouldn't have got without my short hairstyle" she says – and went off with them for dinner. Next morning we met for breakfast in Dublin's Clarence Hotel. I put my tape recorder on the dining table, and started to drink my coffee. She looked me straight in the eye and said: "Right. Let's get this done!"
"Okay..." I nodded. We laughed, made faces at each other, and I switched on the recorder.
Sammy started at the beginning: "I was in New York on business, and catching up with someone I had sort of been seeing. We stayed in this fabulous hotel. We both decided our relationship was far too complicated and that we would just stay friends, which we did. But next day, when he was leaving, he said: 'I think there is a sort of lump that you need to get checked.' I had noticed something in the summer but didn't think anything of it. But when he said it, I kind of knew it probably involved cancer. So when I flew home, I went to Beaumont Hospital and they were really good. The week before Christmas they asked me, if it was necessary to operate, would I like it before or after Christmas?
"Definitely before, I said. "'Well,'" the doctor said, 'We don't have the results back yet but I think we both have a good idea we will be seeing you next Thursday.' He was right."
At that point I was thinking, this must have been the most frightening part of a very frightening experience. But with Sammy I didn't think I should be hopping in with journalistic questions on cue, like I normally would. She seemed to read my mind – like sisters do.
"The biopsy came back on December 23 and I didn't tell anybody. The only person who knew was my friend in America. The worst part is waiting for the diagnosis as you go through so many ups and downs, and then it's about keeping your self-control. There's no blame or thought of 'what did I do to deserve this?' It's just one of those things that happens and you've got to get on and deal with it. Not like if you smoke ... "
She glares at my pack of Benson & Hedges right in front of me on the table. I move them a little to the left.
"Right," I said, "So you had the operation."
"I had the operation." She smiled. "And I hate to say this, but I love a good general anaesthetic. It's the one time you can totally switch off. And the post-op drugs are very pleasant too," she jokes.
"I came out on Christmas Eve, and I got home in time for the annual drinks party at Castle Leslie. About 100 or so people from the locality came for that and the great thing was it was all totally normal. I wanted it to be. I wanted a fabulous Christmas, because the time would come when I would have to tell people, and that's the hardest part because there are so many different reactions, and you don't know yet what the result of the surgery will be, if the tumour will come back or not. If you're going to have chemo or just radio, or nothing at all. I had three weeks to wait."
"That," I said, "must have been a nightmare?"
"No," she said. "I just put it out of my head whenever I could. I'm always the one who supports other people, so I found it easy to support myself, it just made sense. However, it didn't quite go to plan, in that Christmas was fabulous and then I had friends over from Spain staying with me, and another friend was managing a young band who were playing in the Workman's club in Dublin on December 27 and we all went to it. We spent the night here in the Clarence.
"At the gig, my friend who was organising it bounced over and gave me the biggest bear hug and I felt something going pop. It was my stitches; I didn't know that then. Anyway we carried on having great craic, and at about 2am, I was in my room, in my towel and the next thing I saw liquid, like white wine, pouring down my side and thought, what's that? I realised when you have surgery for breast cancer, you have two surgeries. One is to remove the tumour and one is to take part of the central node out. My lymph test had come back clear, thankfully, but I have quite an issue with fluid retention and because of the surgery around the lymph nodes, clear fluid was pouring out. So I got rid of all the fluid and thought I'd better get myself to hospital.
"I hopped in a taxi and got to A&E around 3am. Luckily one of my medics was on that night and he said the fluid build-up was normal. So he tidied me up and re-stitched me. I got back to the hotel around 7am in the morning and met the others for breakfast. One of them said: 'Oh Sammy, were you out clubbing on the sly last night, late?' and I said 'No, No. Why?' And he said: 'How come you have a nightclub wristband on?' That blew my cover! I'd forgotten to take the hospital band off. So I had to come clean with my friends, which turned out to be a godsend.
"But it was still Christmas and there were still all the festivities to be dealt with. I had to go to all the functions and parties with this little drain-bag attached to my side. If I was dancing, I would pull away from my dance partner so they couldn't feel it. On New Year's Day, there was a very interesting mix of people and I came face to face with one of my favourite rock stars. He put his arms round me and I realised his hand was on my draining bag!"
"Were ya scarlet?" I joked.
"I was," she said, with laugh. "I just looked at him like a rabbit in the headlights and said I need to go to the bathroom and bolted. He must have thought I was mad."
Eventually Sammy had to go back to her oncologist to get a prognosis.
"The big fear was as I'm self-employed, how is this going to affect my business? I was facing into a year of chemo, so the first thing I did when I got home was set up a meeting with the staff and legal team. During treatment I made a great friend – a chemo buddy. She had a very senior role in a very big company and no one knew. She worked her way through it, not even her children knew. She was very pretty and fair and had a very realistic wig. I made up my mind that as I was dark, and was going to lose my eyebrows and eye lashes, I would not be able to hide it."
"I remember going with you to get your wigs and when you shaved your hair off," I reminded her. "You got two wigs, one was big hair, Dolly Parton style and one was Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction style. But you rarely wore them."
"I wore one of those wigs – the big, long-haired one – for MasterChef," she said. "And every time I put my head forward, the wig fell forward and into the food."
"Look," she said. "You know when you start chemo, you are going to lose your hair, but it won't all fall out in one go. It will fall out bit by bit. So at the start, I cut my hair off in a ponytail and sent it to Locks of Love – they make wigs for children who have lost their hair for all sorts of reasons. Your hair has to be 16 inches long for them to be able to use it and mine was 18 inches, so I put it in a black bow in a Jo Malone box. It weighed over a pound, it was the quickest weight loss I ever had."
She was quiet for a moment and then told me that she had to take a few days out of chemo twice – for very different reasons. Once was for MasterChef. "The other time was when I wanted to go and see my mother. She was very ill with dementia in the south of France. So I went to see her and never told her. I mean I couldn't; she was in her paranoid stage. It's awful when you get to that stage, so no point giving her something else to worry about. I spent some time with her and said my goodbyes. She was dying. Then I resumed treatment and I never saw her again."
"Did you ever feel," I asked, "Oh crap, I might be following her soon? Or I wish I could tell her so she could just be a mom and comfort me as mothers do?"
"No, I never thought I might be following her, never! Mum grew up a war baby and was always very stoic about things, she just got on with things. That's probably where I got my practicality from."
Sammy gives only one piece of advice. If you are feeling poorly, get yourself medically checked, because with cancer, early diagnosis is everything. She mentioned that Daffodil Day is coming up on Friday, March 28, "so give a thought to the Irish Cancer Society. The next 10 years in cancer treatment are going to be very interesting as so many new treatments are going to come out ... the advancement will be astonishing.
"Remember, the consultants would rather see 100 people and send them away saying you're fine than one person dying through not catching something in time. Mine was caught at that early point. If I hadn't done anything about it for another three to six months, it would probably be very different.
"If my American friend hadn't the will to tell me what he did when he was dumping me, it might not have worked out like it did in the end?" She laughed.
"A bit of a crap way to find out, if you put it like that, though," I said.
"Maybe but ... I'm here!"