Friday 20 September 2019

Emily Hourican: 'I would always have said 'never' to cosmetic procedures until I got cancer and the face I saw in the mirror changed'

I would always have said 'no way' to cosmetic intervention, until I got cancer, and my face bore all the painful evidence of treatment

Emily pictured before and after undergoing cosmetic procedures
Emily pictured before and after undergoing cosmetic procedures
Before: Emily Hourican. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Emily Hourican

If anyone had asked me two years ago whether I would ever consider cosmetic intervention to my face - Botox and fillers, basically - I would have said a resounding and rather judgemental "No".

My reasoning would have been many-stranded - I believe we should resist the idea that our physical appearance is the most important thing about us; trying to hold back time is futile; I'm not a model or actress so what does it matter, really, what I look like? - but more than any of those, my refusal would have been based on the fact that I was perfectly happy with the way I looked.

I'm not Angelina Jolie, but I liked my face. It was mine. I understood it and felt familiar with it. On a good day, or night, with a bit of effort, I thought I looked pretty nice. I didn't mind the business of getting - and looking - older. A few more lines, a couple of little wrinkles around the eyes, the fading elasticity and glow of youth. These things happened gradually and quite kindly as the years went on, so that I had time to get accustomed to them, and make the minute automatic adjustments we are all guilty of before looking in the mirror: a tilt of the head to get our best angle, an unconscious focus on our best features. Because we are all entitled to fool ourselves, for as long as we can. And we all have a duty to look beyond the banal interpretation of time in lines and wrinkles, and see instead A Life, in all its richness and glory. I was determined to do just that.

And then I got cancer, just over a year ago, and in getting treated for that cancer, the face I saw in the mirror changed, abruptly and significantly. The treatment was all concentrated around the lower half of my face - mouth, chin, neck - and it was rough. I emerged, cured - Halleluja, forever and always! - but with the face of an ancient mariner. Third-degree burns to the neck, leathery, lined, scarred and splotched with ugly darker bits where the sun had broken through whatever barrier of cream, hat and scarf I put up. My mother described my face as "like a burned faggot".

Before: Emily Hourican. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Before: Emily Hourican. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Worse though, I looked, certainly to my eyes, sad. The damage to the skin around my mouth meant that I had deep lines on either side that fanned outwards. The weeks of bombardment with radiotherapy and drugs, the months of scrunching my face into tight creases, in an effort to cope with the pain and misery, had left their legacy in deep furrows.

Of course I was beyond happy to be alive, and to be getting well again. Quite soon I felt wonderful, and profoundly grateful to have come through relatively unscathed. But my face bothered me. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw again the awfulness of those months. I didn't quite recognise the person I saw looking back at me. I felt I had been robbed of the sedate, kindly dwindling of my appearance, and plunged, violently, into advanced age. And I felt very self-conscious - my battle with cancer written on my face for all to see.

So I consulted Dr Katherine Mulrooney, cosmetic dermatologist, and as kind as she is gentle and talented, about what could be done. We discussed fillers for the lines around the mouth, a tiny bit of Botox around the eyes, and laser for the sunspots. I was gung-ho, but my consultant firmly said "no needles, no laser" for another six months. The man saved my life; not listening to him would have been churlish, and stupid. And so I waited. And with every passing month I felt better and happier, fatter and fitter, and more confident that really, I was indeed well again. And yet, the lines and grooves were still there, and I was no more reconciled to them.

Then, a couple of months ago, my then-five-year-old daughter said "why does your face still look like you've got cancer?" and her glorious tactlessness coincided almost exactly with the end of the six-month moratorium on needles and laser, and at that point, I decided, "right, to hell with it. I'm taking action!"

Subtle, natural, gentle - these were the guidelines I gave Dr Mulrooney, who said "of course". And so I arrive, for a peel and IPL laser, followed by fillers - something called Radiesse, that is calcium-based, and not only plumps and lifts, but also promises to stimulate natural production of collagen so that, you hope, when it starts to wear off after a year-and-a-half or so, your body will be producing extra to take its place - and a tiny bit of Botox around the mouth.

I am terrified, of course. Terrified that I will be the one-in-however-many who reacts badly. Terrified that I will leave looking like one of those celebrities we all laugh at, with their giant lips and chipmunk cheeks. Mostly terrified that I will not look like myself, and that my mother will notice and comment disapprovingly.

And after: Emily Hourican. Photo: David Conachy
And after: Emily Hourican. Photo: David Conachy

There's about half an hour of needles, thin ones, injected into various points around mouth and chin, which I don't mind at all. I don't mind the blood either - what trickle of it there is - but I get a fright the first time I look in the mirror. I look like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. My chin is huge and my cheeks tightly padded. The swelling, Dr Katherine tells me, will go down in a couple of days, as will any bruising.

I ring my husband and warn him: "I look weird," and go home, worried that I look so unlike myself, beset by a small niggle that says "serve you right if you end up as someone who hates her face." And then I realise, I don't care. To hell with it. I may as well try a new face, because I'm not happy with the old one. This is very liberating, but already after a few hours, the swelling has gone down enough that I think I can begin to see what the final results will be: subtle, possibly unnoticeable to anyone except me… fantastic.

A day later I don't even feel the need to check my face in the mirror. I already feel better. The laser has faded the worst sunspots and got rid of the smaller ones entirely, so that my skin is smoother and glows more. I've got some blue bruises under my chin that make me look as if I have a faint five o'clock shadow, and there is still enough swelling that I'm worried strangers will think I've been in a fight, but I can see exactly where this is going, and I love it.

Seeing those lines, the grooves made by misery and pain, soften and disappear, gently flooded by filler, is wonderful. Seeing the corners of my mouth lift themselves out of the sad, post-treatment droop makes me feel happy. A few more days and the swelling is entirely gone, and, in a funny way, I both can and can't see the difference. When I look in the mirror now, I don't get the small fright I have got for the last year - the jolt of 'do I really look like that?' Now, I feel I look like 'myself.' I don't look like I did 20 years ago - I don't want to. That would be weird. I look, to my eyes anyway, the way I did a year and a half ago, before getting sick, and getting better, and all that happened between those two things. I look less worried and gloomy, more serene. Lighter. It's very nice.

Emily Hourican at home last week with her daugher Bee, Right Emily undergoing treatment for cancer in St Luke’s Hospital, Dublin, this time last year
Emily Hourican at home last week with her daugher Bee, Right Emily undergoing treatment for cancer in St Luke’s Hospital, Dublin, this time last year

My husband says he can't see much difference, which is lovely of him, but when pushed, he admits I appear "less tired". My mother arrives for lunch, four days post-filler, and I wait, in agonies, for her to scrutinise me and say suspiciously "what have you done to your face?" (she is perfectly capable of this). Instead, she says "you look wonderful." And so I tell her, and instead of being disapproving, she is delighted for me.

If I hadn't had cancer, I don't think I would ever have permitted myself to get any 'work' done. It would have felt too vain, too shallow, a shocking waste of money to spend 'only' on myself. And if by chance I had done anything, I would have stayed quiet, denied it until I was blue in the face: "oh, I just got a good night's sleep…" Now though, knowing the huge difference made to the way I feel by a subtle change in the way I look, I think - "why not?" And I want to shout it from the rooftops.

Why is it 'vanity' when physical alterations are the product of cosmetic intervention, and 'self-improvement' if they are the product of a diet, say, or going to the gym? Why is it commendable to lift weights in order to get toned arms but somehow shameful when it's better skin or a different mouth shape you go for? I am not suggesting - never would - that women 'should' get something done. Simply this - if you are unhappy with something that can be easily fixed, then for the sake of an hour, a bit of bruising, money that yes, is a lot, but probably equates to less than a holiday, why not go for it?

I am right back to being perfectly happy with the way I look - more even, because I've lived through the alternative - and that is such a nice feeling.

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