Life Living With Cancer

Sunday 19 May 2019

'She's been so courageous to say, 'don't worry, this is just a goodbye'' - Irish writer Emma Hannigan praised universally for her brave post

As the author's cancer story resonates with readers around the world, Tanya Sweeney looks at the art of sharing

Conversation: Emma Hannigan’s blog post went viral
Conversation: Emma Hannigan’s blog post went viral

Tanya Sweeney

Graceful and beautiful though it was, it was the blog post that no one wanted to see. And it was clearly a post that best-selling author Emma Hannigan had dreaded writing. But there, black and white, was the author taking a 'bow' and bidding that most awful of farewells.

"All good things must come to an end. The time that I knew was borrowed must be given back soon, so it seems," wrote the author, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 2007.

"The conversation I never wanted to have has been said. My medical team have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this fight but all avenues have now been exhausted.

"To say that I am heartbroken doesn't begin to cover it. But I feel I'd like to say something, after all that's what I've done over the years - say stuff, write stuff and tell you what's going down."

It was a post of extraordinary grace, acceptance and love, but what happened next was even more extraordinary. Perhaps not surprisingly, Emma's post went viral and was viewed and reposted across the world, thousands of times.

Heartfelt messages from Katie Taylor, Lucy Kennedy, Sile Seoige and fellow authors Cecelia Ahern, Patricia Scanlan and Marian Keyes were sent in response. Fans and friends alike, touched by Emma's words, have now instigated a campaign to get her latest novel, Letters To My Daughters, to the top of the booksellers' charts in Ireland.

It's been an overwhelming and powerful public response by anyone's yardstick, though perhaps not an entirely surprising one. There's nary a family in the land who haven't been affected by cancer, making Emma's journey one that too many of us have witnessed all too often. As someone who describes herself on her Twitter handle as a 'cancer survivor x 10', Emma's long battle with the illness has been prolonged, seemingly relentless.

It has made her latest news even more bitterly poignant.

"This has really knocked people sideways and it's particularly tragic because of her personality," observes Owen Connolly of the Connolly Counselling Centre in Stillorgan (

"She's been so courageous to say, 'don't worry, this is just a goodbye'. I'm sure others have gotten great strength from it.

Ahern: Heartfelt response
Ahern: Heartfelt response

"As she has been on this journey, she has walked hand in hand with her audience," he adds. "When she was identified with the BRCA 1 cancer gene and had to go through a horrendous process [of having a hysterectomy and double mastectomy], she involved her readers step by step. She took such a positive approach again and again, and you don't get many people with that amazing mindset."

But there's something in the very humanness of her post that has resonated so acutely with people. Even in the face of death, Emma's positive, loving attitude, not to mention her pragmatism, is resonant. And yet, she is mad and sad - an entirely human reaction to the news.

What's more, the end of life is a time often shrouded in mystery. For Emma to decide not to retreat from public life at the time, and to be so clear-eyed about what lies ahead, is an inspiration for many.

Many others before her, including Jade Goody, who died in 2009, Donal Walsh, who died in 2013, and Emmerdale actress Leah Bracknell, have been similarly candid or open about their prognosis. Last month, 27-year-old Holly Butcher wrote a viral blog post the day before she died of Ewing's Sarcoma, reflecting on the way her experience has made her value every second of her time on earth.

The decision to go public with a final farewell certainly does not go unnoticed.

Brian Nolan of the Irish Hospice Foundation ( has spent 30 years counselling Irish people coming to the end of life, as well as their families.

Of Emma's Facebook post, he notes: "It's so brave. We all know it's going to happen to us, and we have a notion of how we'd like to be at the end. We like to think we'd be incredibly brave like herself, but it takes a lot of people a long time to come to a psychological place where she is.

"I think that's what has really captured people's imagination. They think: 'Would I be like that? Could I be like that?'"

A terminally ill person's coming to terms with death, Nolan notes, often comes after a maelstrom of other tumultuous emotions.

"A lot of people are terrified and are devastated," he observes. "If it were me getting that news [of a terminal illness], I'd have to have a little meltdown. I'd have to be devastated for my life and myself, and I'd be mad as hell about the unfairness.

"To get that news is like an earthquake going off in your brain. You get over the initial shock, then you're numbed, and then that wears off.

"It takes people time to come to a place of accommodation with the news - they have good days and bad days."

Nolan is keen to point out that there is no right or wrong way to react to a terminal illness. While many like Emma will gain strength from sharing the news, many others prefer to keep things private.

Before her death in 2016, actress Caroline Aherne had kept the severity of her illness private, upholding work commitments until a few weeks before her death and eventually dying alone at home because her family didn't know she'd taken a sudden turn for the worse.

What many people do want, at the end of life, is a chance to be heard and listened to; something, Nolan says, that often gets overlooked.

"People often say, 'don't be talking like that' or 'don't be upsetting yourself'," he says. "When you're dying, people can talk about you, but not to you. They wrap you in cotton wool, mainly to keep the hope alive. But to be peaceful at the end, you need to be at peace with yourself. You need to create memories with loved ones and say the things you need to. If you have been allowed to say your goodbye and say your piece, it's likely you'll get to a place where you feel you're done, and you're ready to go.

"But people often have a lot of work to get to that place."

Letters To My Daughters by Emma Hannigan is out now.

How to support cancer research

Following the overwhelming response to her blog post, Emma Hannigan took to her website to thank fans for their support and urge them to donate to cancer research.

"Without new drugs I wouldn't have had the last 10 years with my family and you guys," she wrote.

To donate €4 to Breast Cancer Ireland, text CURE to 50300. Funds raised will be used for research into finding a cure for the disease.

Dubray Books has announced it will donate all profits from Hannigan's latest novel, Letters To My Daughters, to the Irish Cancer Society.

"Buy it for Emma, buy it to support anyone who has been touched by cancer (and buy it because, as always, it's a wonderful book)," the store wrote in a tweet.

Letter To My Daughters (Hachette, €17.55) is available in Dubray stores in Dublin, Wicklow, Galway and Kilkenny, or online on

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