Tuesday 23 October 2018

'I swam with turtles and felt like a princess for the day' - cancer survivor (62) who is following her dreams

After a brush with cancer, retired nurse Brenda Bergin has reinvented herself. From swimming with turtles to setting up her own digital business, she tells our reporter it's never too late to follow your dreams

A new chapter: Brenda Bergin from Waterford City. Photo: Patrick Browne
A new chapter: Brenda Bergin from Waterford City. Photo: Patrick Browne

Kathy Donaghy

At a time in life when many opt to take it easier, Brenda Bergin decided to set up her own business and follow her dream of travelling the world.

Now 68, having survived a tough battle with breast cancer, she's keen to tell older people that it's never too late to make big changes in your life.

No one is more surprised at her new life than Brenda is herself. She says that if she'd been told 20 years ago that she'd find herself running her own business from home and planning her next adventure, she wouldn't have believed them.

In the mid 90s, her marriage had broken down and her life in Dublin ended when she moved back to her home town of Waterford with her two children Donal and Michelle.

A few years later she met Bill, a doctor, through her work as a nurse and love blossomed again.

However six years ago, at the age of 62, Brenda was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy, had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone replacement treatment. She had been working in St Patrick's Hospital in Waterford, which specialises in care of the elderly, but the cancer forced her into retirement.

"Even though I was a nurse I didn't expect it. I got a shock when a routine mammogram showed up the cancer," says Brenda.

About a year into retirement it hit her: she needed to find an outlet. As a member of the Craft Council of Ireland, Brenda had always been crafty. She began making shawls and selling them online.

But her illness again forced her to step back. The medical advice was to rest as tiredness was not aiding her recovery.

Around this time Brenda began thinking about her long-held dream of swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean with sea turtles. For some it's a trip to Paris, for others an African safari, but for Brenda for as long as she could remember the dream was always the same.

To travel was something she had always wanted to do. As a girl attending the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, Brenda had studied Spanish.

One of her best friends in school was a Spanish girl called Maria from Madrid. When school finished Brenda spent the summer with Maria's family and fell in love with Spanish culture, the climate and the language. It was an experience that would plant the seeds of wanderlust in Brenda even though settling down and having a family in the 1970s meant putting far-flung adventures on ice for a while.

As she slowly regained her strength, Brenda began experimenting with Twitter and began hosting the hugely successful #tweetursis, an online platform where the host promotes other businesses. It gave her the taste for business and entrepreneurship and shortly afterwards her idea for DigiGranBiz was born.

The blog site allows Brenda to share her lifestyle and travel secrets and stories. Her big social media presence means she's now become one of the country's best known older "influencers". As well as DigiGran, she started a Facebook page called "Seniorpreneurs" where older business people could connect. The group is now open to anyone as some of Brenda's younger friends wanted to join the conversation and share ideas too.

"I realised that there were lots of people out there working from home. I got to know people and relationships developed. I was terrified of Twitter, or making a mistake but I realised I was able to communicate with people. I started talking to people and getting feedback for my ideas," says Brenda.

"Now if I find something I'm interested in, I share it and I invite brands to share their events. I think the blog was born when I was in the middle of the cancer. I kept thinking of all the places I wanted to visit when I got better. The dream was to swim with turtles in the Caribbean and see the island of Mustique," she says.

"I remember when I was younger reading the Spanish version of Hello magazine and seeing these pictures of Princess Margaret in Mustique. It looked so beautiful. It looked like it would be the trip of a lifetime," says Brenda.

Two years ago it finally became a reality and Brenda and her partner Bill set out on an island cruise of the Caribbean. "It was just so fantastic. It was like when a child is born. I was so ill, they didn't think I'd make it but here I was walking on to Mustique and swimming in turquoise water. My favourite days were in Barbados as we went on a catamaran and I swam with turtles. It was so beautiful. I felt like a princess for the day," she says.

Since then Brenda has been making up for lost time. Trips to the Italian city of Genoa, Spain's Barcelona and its Andalusia region plus French trips have fed her travel blog, imagination and further fuelled her wanderlust.

Guest bloggers have also shared their travels on Brenda's site with tales of their own trips and Brenda hopes the blog will grow into a resource for anyone, particularly older people, interested in travel.

"I love everything about travelling; the lead up to it and planning the trip. Madrid opened my eyes when I first went there at 17. Now I have a to-do list - a kind of bucket list - of places I want to go to. I'd love to see New York. Friends have told me about the buzz of the city and I'd love to experience that. I'd also love to go to Canada. I was meant to go to Toronto for a job many years ago but I never got there. I think I've got to go," says Brenda.

Being active and busy is something she's thriving on. "All through my years in nursing I just realised I wanted to keep myself as healthy as possible. I walk daily with my rescue dog, a shih tzu called Muppie. He was like a teenager when I got him but he's quietened down. He was by my side all through my illness and I love to come into the house and he's there. I go swimming as well and my three granddaughters keep me busy too. I'm often taking them here and there during the week," she says.

"My day really starts at midday when I go to the laptop. I'm not a TV person so I could still be on the laptop late at night. A new life has opened up. I'm going into another phase. It's funny because I never saw myself being older. I dreaded hitting 40 but as soon as I got past that I got over it. I don't feel 68," says Brenda.

"I have found myself stuck many times with the ups and downs of life. The cancer treatment hit me hard and I found myself with no purpose. I knew I'd have to do something. I had to ask 'where is the Brenda before illness'? I've had my down days through illness and my marriage break-up and I had to get support to get through those times," she says.

"I'm able to indulge in things now. I have to be thrifty to make it work. At the same time I think my illness makes me realise that each day is very precious and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I still have down days and I'm a natural worrier but because I'm busy it dilutes the anxiety. I really didn't see this phase of my life coming. Out of the darkness my blog was born."

● This article is part of a series of profiles of people who are redefining later life. If you know someone who may fit the bill, email lkearney@independent.ie

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