Roz and Rachel Purcell: 'My sister's cancer made me realise you shouldn't put things off'
They're the ying and yang, house-sharing siblings behind the Natural Born Feeder brand, so when 28-year-old Rachel Purcell was diagnosed with leukaemia, it turned life upside down for model Roz too. Here, the sisters tell our reporter how a frightening year has taught them both the importance of embracing life.
'It's absolutely strange being told you're sick when you don't really look or feel it," says Rachel Purcell of being diagnosed with leukaemia. "My boyfriend got a really bad fright, because I just didn't seem unwell. We all got a fright, but the more we did our research and learned about it, the less frightening it became."
For her younger sister, Rozanna, the shock and anxiety of hearing of Rachel's condition took longer to wear off. "Rach is like my little sister in a weird way, and I would have preferred this to happen to me," Roz says. "She's strong, but I'm really strong. But we don't dwell or over-think or talk about it too much. Our family are quite humorous about it, we don't avoid it but we don't go overboard with it either. I've had to learn to stop Googling stuff anyway!"
Roz Purcell is a face you're no doubt used to seeing. A model, author and foodie, she's been well-known in Ireland since she represented us at Miss Universe in 2010. At 25, Roz is the youngest of the three Purcell siblings; Rebecca (33), is the eldest and Rachel comes in the middle. The 28-year-old works in digital marketing and is the business manager for Roz's Natural Born Feeder brand.
She and Roz live together in Dublin, and are incredibly close. "I cook, she cleans!" Roz laughs. "We're both into fitness and eating well, and now that it's just the two of us in the house, we'll sit down and have dinner together."
When it comes to personality, Roz says that they are "like ying and yang". "I'm quite creative and arty-farty, where as she's very organised. I love nature and being out and about, she loves sitting down and getting stuff done.
"When we were teenagers, we used to absolutely murder one another - in fact, we've both pushed each other through glass windows and doors. We were still friends, like she'd sneak me out to nightclubs with her, but I was an awful one for robbing her clothes and fake tan - I was just a bratty little sister. Once I matured, I mellowed out and so did she, and now we don't fight at all."
The two are a team when it comes to Natural Born Feeder, Roz's blog that has developed into a book, cookery demonstrations and television appearances all with a healthy eating slant.
And so, with so much going on, Rachel wasn't all that worried when, in January this year, she went to her GP because she was feeling tired and run-down. "I'd been feeling so tired for ages, but I always put it down to work and being exhausted from working in such a busy industry," Rachel says.
"Roz and I went away to Thailand last Christmas, and I didn't feel too bad when I was there because I was just relaxing most of the time. But when I came home, I was so exhausted. Come seven o'clock every night, I just couldn't keep my eyes open. I was saying to myself that jet lag shouldn't last that long! Then my throat was sore and swollen, so I just thought I was really run down and that it might be a good idea get my bloods checked."
"We were actually both sick after Thailand, I'd hurt my foot hopping off a boat and it was swollen, so I was convinced I had typhoid!" laughs Roz. "So we both went to the doctor together. I get bloods done regularly, but Rachel said she hadn't got them done in more than a year-and-a-half, so I was scolding her for that. Thinking back now, in Thailand, she had broken out in loads of bruises. I thought I was doing the Thai boxing classes wrong and I'd hurt her."
Later in the evening of their visit to the local GP's surgery, the doctor called Rachel and told her to come back in the next day, that it was urgent. "I really didn't think anything of it to be honest, maybe that I'd picked up a parasite in Thailand, but that was the extent of it," she says. "So the next day I went in, thought I'd be prescribed some antibiotics and sent home. I was on my own because I honestly didn't think it would be a big deal. But the doctor was really serious; he said my white blood cell count was really high and that it wasn't normal.
"That meant nothing to me at the time, I didn't have a clue, but he said I needed to go for further tests and to go to the hospital."
Confused, Rachel asked the doctor what the worst case scenario might be. "He said he couldn't say for sure, but that it could be leukaemia. He kept talking after that point but nothing was going in to my head. I just kept thinking he just had it wrong, because I looked and felt fine. I asked if he would just chat to my mum on the phone, because she's really good at taking in and processing information - at that point I just wasn't listening to him."
When Rachel's mum, Cecily, got back on the phone to her, it was to tell Rachel that she and her husband John were coming up to Dublin from the family home in Tipperary right away. "I think I realised then that it was really serious," Rachel says.
Rachel went home to the apartment she shares with Roz and, at that time, Roz's then partner and Voice of Ireland coach Bressie. "As soon as I got home, I broke down. There were so many things going through my mind, because at that point I didn't know what it was, how bad it was or anything."
"I heard her run in, and it was clear she was upset," remembers Roz. "I asked her what was wrong, but she couldn't talk, she was sobbing. When she was able to tell me, it was like somebody had punched me in the face. Then she said our parents were already on the way, and it escalated so quickly - this had all happened in the space of a day."
The sisters then went back to Fethard, Co Tipperary with their parents, for what both of them describe as the "worst weekend ever".
"It was so hard because we just didn't know anything at that point, there were no test results," Rachel recalls. "We didn't know what stage it was at, what it was or anything."
"It was so difficult for us all to understand, because she looked and seemed absolutely fine," says Roz. "I couldn't sleep thinking about it, I remember getting up at 5am and going for a run. I was just about to launch my book, but I couldn't even think about it, all I could think about was Rachel's news."
Rachel was referred to St James' Hospital in Dublin for a bone marrow biopsy, and from there diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML).
"We were all in the sitting room one evening right after the diagnosis and Roz was on her phone. I looked over at her and saw her welling up. She said she was looking at something else, but she's the worst liar!" Rachel laughs of her sister's encounter with 'Doctor Google'. "In reality, cancer is a bummer to get, but it could be so much worse. I really realise how much worse it could be when I go in for treatment. I know how incredibly lucky I actually am."
A slow-growing cancer, CML affects the body's ability to produce myeloid cells which in turn affect the bone marrow's production of infection-fighting white blood cells. According to the Irish Cancer Society, CML is a rare cancer, with just 31 cases diagnosed in Ireland in 2009, the most recent year for which official statistics are available. However, unlike the more aggressive acute forms of leukaemia, CML is a disease that patients can live with throughout their lives.
"The one thing that stood out to me was that CML is not curable," Rachel says, "but my doctors have always said to me: 'If you're going to get cancer, this is the best one to get because it's completely controllable.' It's a rare type, but there have been lots of advances in the medication to treat it, so we're very positive about it. The staff in James' Hospital in Dublin have been absolutely incredible, I can't thank them enough."
Rachel is also thankful for the part that her healthy lifestyle has played in helping to combat the disease. "I think I'm in a good position in a way, because I have a healthy lifestyle," she says. "Most people with CML lead a really normal life, it's not the be all and end all - you're not doomed with it.
"I'm in the gym, I'm in work, I have an ordinary lifestyle. I have my days when I'm tired, and sometimes I wake up with a swollen face from fluid retention, but there are other tablets you take to help with that. I think eating properly and training are only going to help me - and to be honest, I forget I have it half the time!"
One thing both sisters are very keen to stress is the importance of getting regular check-ups from the doctor. "Thankfully I went to the doctor and got tests when I did, because it would have kept getting worse and could have affected my spleen, which could have ruptured," Rachel says. "There's no way of telling how long I had it because it had been a good while since my last tests, so the big thing for me is to urge people to go and get your bloods checked regularly; if I'd been doing that, it may have shown up sooner.
"Like many people feeling under the weather, I had that mentality of: 'Oh I'm grand, if I eat a bit better and sleep more, things will be better.' But now I know the importance of getting checked regularly, I can't stress it enough. I have an awareness now of my health that I previously wouldn't have had."
Yet what 28-year-old would be that conscious of their well-being? To hear the C-word at such a very young age is not something you would expect. In fact, according to the Irish Cancer Society, it is most commonly people in the 45-55 age bracket who are diagnosed with CML.
"It's made me realise that you shouldn't put things off," Roz says. "I am a bit of a hypochondriac, but I get my bloods taken all the time because I used to have a thyroid problem, but it's so important to get your moles checked, your breasts, smears and everything. The worst thing that could happen is that you'll catch it early. But still, you never really expect it to happen to anyone so young."
Roz says that Rachel's illness has changed her life too. "With my sister getting cancer it made me realise that it can happen to anyone, even someone really fit and healthy. Her good lifestyle definitely gave her a better shot at it, but it's also made me see that we all have to live a little. There's so much more to life than just work and being busy, it's really all about the little things every day and enjoying the life you lead."
One thing that's changed recently in the Dublin branch of the Purcell household is the arrival of Wilko, a six-month-old miniature Jack Russell terrier (pictured on page 10) who's become the light of the sisters' lives - and has even made some media appearances. "We just thought, you only live once, life's too short not to have a puppy!" laughs Roz.
"I'm obsessed with dogs, and had wanted one since I moved back to Dublin from Toronto four years ago," explains Rachel. "So the doctor suggested getting a dog to help with my stress levels might be good, and we jumped at it. Thankfully the landlords were happy to let us have him - they're dog lovers too, so it all just worked out."
However, some might say that having a pup can actually add to a person's stress levels, especially one as rambunctious as Wilko. "It's really important to stay active but to also really switch off in your down time, so having a pup is just good for me, I think," says Rachel. "Wilko's attitude is infectious, you can't help but feel better when he's around."
Although the two see themselves as equal puppy parents, Roz says Rachel is more the disciplinarian. "He definitely knows I'm more of a pushover," she laughs.
Despite a difficult year, the Purcell sisters are staying strong. "It's made us even closer. Our sister Rebecca is very positive, and we know we'll be fine, we'll get through it. We're very tight-knit, and when this happened we all dropped everything and now make even more time for each other," says Roz.
"I say yes to way more things now," says Rachel. "Something like this happening definitely gives you a kick up the arse and makes you appreciate things more. I've never spoken to anyone else who has CML and I don't know their experience, but I'm just getting on with things. I'm feeling good, and it really, truly could be so much worse."
Photographs by Naomi Gaffey