Life Family Features

Sunday 27 May 2018

Former boxer James Clancy on the bittersweet reunion with his adopted daughter after losing his wife to ovarian cancer

Ex-boxer James Clancy bares his soul to our reporter about the death of his wife and the adoption secret he kept until after her death

James Clancy is now working to raise awareness of the ‘Silent Killer’ among women. Photo: Tony Gavin
James Clancy is now working to raise awareness of the ‘Silent Killer’ among women. Photo: Tony Gavin
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Lord Byron believed there that there were only four questions of value in life. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer, he said, to each is the same. "Only love."

This was perhaps the case with James and Marie Clancy. Their love was the most sacred thing in life. It didn't die when Marie passed away from ovarian cancer in May, 2014 in Doolin, County Clare.

"It was at three in morning, our last conversation," says James. "She said to me, 'I think we need to go for a walk.' She slipped away."

Was Marie religious? Did she believe she was going to a better place after she died?

"We never spoke about death," James says.

"I never gave up on her. I was always saying to her, 'We'll beat this.' But it got the better of her, you know?"

Marie Clancy was aged just 38 when she died of ovarian cancer in 2014
Marie Clancy was aged just 38 when she died of ovarian cancer in 2014

I ask James does he want to take a break from the interview as he looks like he is about to break down in tears over the subject matter - the last conversation he had with his beloved wife before she died from ovarian cancer at the age of 38.

Read more: Terminally ill Irish woman who inspired Graham Norton: ‘I’d love to invite Graham for a coffee in Charleville to tell him how much I appreciated his comment’

James says he is okay, though his facial demeanour says otherwise.

"She was a beautiful person and will never be forgotten," he says.

In 2010, James noticed that Marie tended to get a pain in her back and her legs, along with a bloating in her tummy. Marie put the pain in her back and legs down to a sciatic nerve and the bloating in her tummy to coeliac.

"She put it down to everything but what it was," James says now. "So it was kind of ignored."

They moved to America in August of 2000 - "with one suitcase and the name of a man to meet in a bar, we took the flight to Boston and restarted our life there."

Read more: 'I was told I'd ovarian cancer when my daughter was four days old'

James worked in construction in Boston and became a professional boxer. Starting off, he shone as an amateur fighter with his local boxing club in Kilfenora. James won five national titles in the 1990s.

He tells me that in the early days of his boxing career in Ireland he slept in a car outside Dublin's National Stadium during the senior boxing championships because he "couldn't afford accommodation. I had no back-room team, sometimes not even a coach" - just his own grit and determination to succeed.

It was a "huge disappointment" that James missed out on the 1996 Olympic selection for the Irish team through injury.

"I never got the opportunity to bring my amateur career to the highest level but my life brought me on a different path after that," he says, referring to his love for Marie.

Read more: Women and Cancer: 'It's not okay to ignore something that is not normal about your body for a prolonged period...'

He admits that Marie hated his boxing, she was afraid he would get seriously hurt "but she supported me nonetheless because she understood the fighter within me and that I would only hang up the gloves when the time was right for me".

This happened, however, after James and his brother Mark had "two great wins in Madison Square Gardens in New York in 2006". Not long after, James broke his leg and his career at his age was over.

After boxing in America for about 10 years, James and his wife decided to move back to Ireland on June 1, 2010. In May of 2013, while they were on holiday in Spain, James told Marie that she was going to have to have her ongoing health problems checked out.

Two weeks later, she had a CAT scan. Dr Hickey from Limerick read the scan and told her he had an operation set up for her in a week's time in Limerick Regional hospital.

It was the 21st of June, 2013. They were there at eight in the morning. Marie had a full hysterectomy.

"She had everything taken away," James recalls now.

"They couldn't tell her whether it was cancerous or not until he operated. So then he operated on her," James continues. "Her right ovary had four litres of fluid and the left ovary was completely gone with cancer."

Dr Hickey gave James and Marie a brief after the surgery and told them that Marie had cancer of the ovaries.

Read more: Hope over ovarian cancer diagnosis

The following morning at eight o'clock, James met Dr Hickey in the hospital, where he was told what lay ahead for his wife. In short, Marie would receive six rounds of chemotherapy and she should be back to work in eight months.

"Dr Hickey gave us great hope that she was going to be fine," James says. "After the six rounds of chemo, whatever is left there, the chemo will mop up."

The first round of chemo treatment Marie underwent appeared to be doing whatever it says on the tin: it was killing the tumours. Her tumour count was coming down.

"She started off at 336. And the more chemo she was taking, it was killing the tumour. But for it to be safe, the count has to be under 30."

Marie got as far as 74. She finished her chemo in November. They couldn't give her any more chemo.

In December, because she was getting sick and losing weight, they started giving her another drug - Caelyx - to try to keep the tumours decreasing.

This effectively second form of chemo, explains James, creates a double shell around the tumour.

"The first shell sustains it; the second shot of chemo kills it."

"And it wasn't killing it," James says. Marie received two rounds of Caelyx before she was taken in again to be scanned.

The news couldn't have been worse. The cancer had spread to Marie's liver. It had also spread to her breasts and her neck. The tumour was getting bigger, not smaller.

In March, 2014, an oncologist asked James and Marie to come into the hospital to see him. He told them that he couldn't give Marie any more chemo.

"Because if I give you any more chemo," he told her, "then it will kill you."

"That was it," James says. Marie, he recalls, just cried. "She kept telling me to tell the doctor that she wanted more chemo. Then we looked for a second opinion and we went to a hospital in Dublin."

They met a second oncologist, who gave them the option to treat the secondaries of Marie's cancer with radium and maybe an operation.

When Marie and her husband went back to Limerick, the first oncologist said he believed "that radium would set it crazy and she would die faster. That was around the third week of April."

On May 15, Marie passed away. She was in a coma for three and-a-half days. James took her home to her parents in Doolin.

She wanted to go back to her parents and there she died. Marie could fight the cancer no longer.

I say to James that his wife was probably a better fighter than him - a former professional boxer the size of a tank.

"She was, yeah," James half-smiles. "She was very tough. It took an awful lot out of her, an awful lot."

James took care of Mary himself at home throughout her illness.

James used to take Marie for drives to the beach in Lahinch on the north-west coast of Clare and thereabouts. It was to the spots he and Marie would visit when they first starting dating. Marie's favourite was the beach at Ballyvaughan in North Clare and the pier in Doolin.

During those trying months in the lead up to the inevitable, James didn't want to waste a second of his precious time with Marie talking about her mortality. He couldn't bring himself to do so.

"We just never spoke about her passing. So she passed without us ever speaking about death. I couldn't bring myself to do it. There was only two months or a month left. I couldn't tell her."

Maybe Marie knew and she felt she couldn't bring herself to tell James? Both of them were scared of hurting each other with bad news?

He smiles and says: "Yeah. I will never forget her. I lost the most important fight of my life."

James and Marie's story together did not, however, end with her death in May, 2014. James says they kept "a secret for many years", which, after Marie died, he could keep no more.

He and Marie had a baby girl when they were teenagers.

"And a sequence of events all those years ago led to our daughter being adopted and therefore not part of our lives," James says, adding that Aisling was "always in their hearts and they loved her and never forgot about her and knew that one day they would be reunited."

Sadly, James and Marie did not go on to have more children.

When they returned from America, they began the search for Aisling, now 22, "and after some time James did find her, but not before Marie died. Aisling and I were reunited in sadness," he says, "but also in great joy", adding that the unbreakable bond of father and child will sustain them both going forward without Marie. "After we were married we really wanted to start a family," James continues. "We both love children but it just didn't happen for us. I guess Marie wasn't well and we never knew it . So Aisling is my only child and I love her all the more for it, we are very close."

Did it make it sadder for James and Marie that they couldn't have children after they had put the child they did have up for adoption?

James says that they always believed they would have more children but when Marie got sick other events took over and it became all about saving her life. James, he says, has "no regrets"; he "has Aisling."

James, from Kilfenora, and Marie, from Doolin, started dating in 1991. They met in O'Connor's bar in Doolin and he asked her out.

On their first date, he took her to see The Stunning in concert in the Falls hotel in Ennistymon. Some years later, they made the big move to America.

James and Marie travelled back from America to get married on October 26, 2008 in Doolin. They had their wedding reception in the Armada in Spanish Point and flew off to Jamaica for their honeymoon. Their whole lives, it appeared, were ahead of them.

When Marie's father Martin became sick with throat cancer in 2010, says James, "that was one of the reasons we moved back. Marie came back to nurse him. He is still alive.

"Ovarian cancer is the silent killer, they call it," James says, adding that women are into stage 3 or stage 4 with ovarian cancer before they find anything. "I think it is pot luck if a woman can be diagnosed with ovarian cancer at stage 1."

There are approximately 300 or 350 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year in Ireland, but there is only a 45pc survival rate for the first five years. Therefore, by the time a woman is diagnosed with ovarian cancer she would usually be a stage 3 or a stage 4 "and at that point it makes ovarian cancer notoriously difficult to treat, which is what happened Marie", says James.

So, for example, if you compared that with breast cancer, maybe 2,800 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in Ireland and there is an 89pc survival rate in the first five years.

"So Marie was complaining of back ache and abdominal pain and complaining of bloating. These things are put down to abdominal issues when women go to the GP. There is little awareness around ovarian cancer and the symptoms and the treatment."

James believes that if Marie had gone to the GP and had the CA125 blood test for ovarian cancer in the beginning she would have had a chance. The difficulty, however - and this is why ovarian cancer is called the Silent Killer - is that ovarian cancer is so problematic.

With breast cancer, there is so much awareness, and rightly so, but there is no single test for screening that is successful for ovarian cancer, he says.

James adds that even with the CA125 blood test, there are different conditions within the body that can give it "a false positive.

"So it really is one of the forgotten cancers because it is not a cancer that is screened. Women think having a smear test for cervical cancer that it will cover ovarian cancer too. It doesn't cover it."

James mentions that a society was set up in 2010 involved in ovarian cancer awareness called SOCK (Supporting Ovarian Cancer Knowledge) when a young woman Jane Keating died from ovarian cancer. She set it up before her death.

"They did what you think would be a very simple thing: they put a leaflet on ovarian cancer into GP surgeries for awareness.

"Women don't know about ovarian cancer until it is too late. I want women to know that if they have the symptoms my wife had they can go to their GP and there are things that they can do.

"If a few women do this, then maybe their lives might be saved."

Asked how has his life been since Marie died, James says: "It has been tough. Jesus. It has been tough. But what really helped me was, you know, when I started taking care of Marie at home there was no money coming in and we had a big mortgage. That mortgage had to go back down to interest-only. The banks were a small bit sympathetic. We were finding it very tough."

"One day, we were just talking and Marie said to me about doing some kind of a fundraiser for other people struggling financially with a cancer diagnosis apart from anything else.

"Marie believed that bikers were among the most generous people you could meet. So Marie had this idea of putting on an event."

Marie and James set it up with his brother Mark and a friend James Boyle, who had lost two brothers from cancer.

Three months after Marie died, says James, the bikers were "rallied" and the Harleys "roared" into Doolin in August 2014 for the first time - "and the Doolin Harley festival came alive". James established The Marie Clancy Foundation and the festival became the main fundraiser. In its first year, they raised €38,000.

This, says James, allowed them to make sizeable donations, with €12,000 going to the local cancer care centre in the first year.

He adds: "She'll always be in my heart."

* The Doolin Harley Fest (featuring a custom Harley bike show, bike graphics, tattoo artists, stalls, fireworks display, pub sessions, live bands and a Burren ride-out) will be run from the grounds of Hotel Doolin from September 16-18.

Sunday Indo Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life