Monday 26 January 2015

'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

HISTORY: Sammy Leslie outside Castle Leslie in Glaslough, Co Monaghan in 2007. Photo: Tom Conachy
FAMILY SUPPORT: Antonia Leslie with her sister Sammy. Photo: Tony Gavin.

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?"

"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.

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