Monday 25 March 2019

'It pulled the mat right out from under my feet but it was a no-brainer to have a double mastectomy' - CEO of leading Irish charity

When Fiona Bolger was confronted by a medical crisis last year, she was caught off-guard. But, she tells Joy Orpen, she is a great believer in dealing with issues and then moving on - this time, on a bicycle

Fiona Bolger has always been vigilant on her health. Photo: David Conachy
Fiona Bolger has always been vigilant on her health. Photo: David Conachy

Fiona Bolger's CV reads like an ambitious, courageous woman's wish-list. Except in her case, it's for real.

A degree in Spanish and Italian was followed by a stint in the Middle East; an illustrious career in sales and marketing; three lovely children; much sailing and some long-distance cycling. And did we fail to mention a brush with ill-health?

Fiona grew up in Clontarf, a jewel on Dublin's north coast. Following a BA in languages, she enrolled in what she describes as the "poor girl's finishing school". In other words, she was a cabin crew member of an airline - in this case, Gulf Air, based in Bahrain.

"In the 1980s, there were no jobs, so off I went," she explains. "We visited Dubai when it still had no resorts. We stopped over in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Karachi, and all sorts of other interesting places."

But eventually Fiona was forced to return to earth, literally, and was soon employed at Rehab Lotteries, ending up as sales and marketing manager. Her next assignment was Dublin Zoo, at a time when it was repositioning itself in line with evolving attitudes around conservation.

"It was great to be part of that rebranding process," she says. Fiona has fond memories of the almost-deserted zoo on dark winter days. That's when she became a particular favourite of an orangutan called Sibu, who would show his interest by noisily shoving boulders around the place. "There was plenty of testosterone on display," she laughs, then adds poignantly, "He even remembered me many years later."

She was then asked by an advertising agency in the UK to set up a branch in Ireland. "That led to me starting my own marketing consultancy here," she explains. "We specialised in travel and sailing. Sunway Holidays was a major client for 20 years. During that time, we created publicity about all their destinations. This involved travelling with 100 journalists to new resorts each year."

Sailing has also been a major part of Fiona's life. "I'm happiest on the water," she says. "My kids sailed, so I spent a lot of time dragging their boats around the country. Now I love to island-hop in west Cork in a RIB [rigid inflatable boat] or [serve as] crew on other people's boats." Fiona has also looked after the Olympic sailing team; she has been communications director of the Galway leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (2009), and is currently on the board of the Irish Sailing Association.

In 2014, Fiona embraced a significant sea change as far as her career was concerned, when she became CEO of Spinal Injuries Ireland. Then, last year, she encountered her own personal medical crisis."I was always vigilant when it came to my health, because my mother died from breast cancer when she was relatively young," she says. "Back then, there were few treatment options, and very little research. So I have always been careful to have regular check-ups and screenings."

And given they had always gone like clockwork, Fiona expected no less when she went for her usual breast screening in January 2017. "I went skipping in the door," she recalls. "I had the mammogram and an ultrasound. That's when someone said, 'We've found something we don't like the look of'. It pulled the mat right out from under my feet. I was told to come back a week later."

Fiona returned with her sister Barbara by her side. They soon learned that a suspicious growth had been detected. The first step was to do a biopsy, which eventually led to a diagnosis of breast cancer. The following month, Fiona had a lumpectomy, which successfully removed the tumour. However, further tests revealed that, given her family history, and the nature of the tumour, she was at high risk of a recurrence. Therefore, she was advised to have a double mastectomy. "I learned I had a 60pc chance of a recurrence of the cancer, but following a mastectomy, that would drop to just 2pc," Fiona explains. "It was a no-brainer."

Nonetheless, it must be absolutely devastating for any woman, yet alone one as glamorous and energetic as Fiona, to get news like that. But don't expect this particular CEO to dwell on what happened back then. Suffice to say, she did what she had to do, with the loving support of her children - Lucy (24), Mark (21) and Jane (17), other family members, and some very good friends.

"My daughter Lucy, who was then a final-year medical student, came to my appointments, which was a huge help," says Fiona. "I had the mastectomy in May, the reconstruction in October, and am delighted with the outcome."

Given that her philosophy is to put on the "bright red lippy" and get cracking, no matter what, it comes as no surprise that Fiona was soon back at the helm of Spinal Injuries Ireland. She also returned to the gym, and given that she couldn't do much with her upper body, she took to spinning instead.

Soon after, Fiona was presented with a cheque for Spinal Injuries Ireland by two men who had raised the money during the Paris2Nice charity cycle. That prompted her to sign up for this year's adventure, when she will ride 700km from the north-west to the south-east of France in six days.

"I hadn't ridden a bike since I was 12," she reveals. "So in March I bought a road bike, and have been training ever since. Yesterday, I completed my first ever 100km. I'm now doing about 200km a week, and another 40km spinning."

Every cent that Fiona raises will be donated to Spinal Injuries Ireland, which works tirelessly to help those whose lives have been turned upside down by events.

"People who have sustained a spinal-cord injury [because of accident or illness] are not entitled to a medical card - they have to apply for one. And if they are granted one, they are often too scared to get a job in case they lose that medical card. So they become isolated and excluded from society," Fiona explains. She adds, "Some 76pc of people with spinal injuries are unemployed, while 40pc live below the poverty line. It's a major obstacle to people moving on. It costs the Exchequer more at the end of the day, because of all the issues it causes."

So, Fiona's mission right now is to raise awareness of the unfair practices and obstacles that those with disabilities face, and help to turn those injustices around. If that means riding 700km on a bicycle, then, so be it.

To sponsor Fiona Bolger in the Paris2Nice charity cycle, see, or contact Spinal Injuries Ireland, tel: (01) 653-2180, or see

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