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'Writing's my therapy as I fight cancer for ninth time'


 Emma Hannigan. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Emma Hannigan. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Emma Hannigan. Photo: Doug O'Connor

When you are tackling cancer for the ninth time, you consider yourself a veteran

Mother-of-two Emma Hannigan is so positive and pragmatic about the illness that has interrupted her life time and again that it is easy to see why she can receive up to 50 emails in one week from other sufferers around the country.

"I suppose people feel they can reach out to me and want to share their stories," she says.

"Sometimes they're just looking for an ear, someone else who completely understands what they're going through.

"It's lovely that people feel they can talk to me. It's touching."

When we speak, Hannigan is suffering from a nasty bout of food poisoning.

"It was the chicken stuffing, I just know it, you can tell," she says as we get the interview under way.

Little will stop this literary heroine from carrying on and putting in a good day's work.

Publishing six books while coping with the effects of several intensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as losing her hair twice, is evidence of that.

"I bring my laptop with me to hospital when I'm having any treatment, so there's literally no skiving off work for me," she says.


"Nothing interferes with my writing, but I like it that way. I enjoy keeping going with it all, it maintains normality and provides a clear focus for me."

In 2005, the 38-year-old discovered she was a carrier of the BRCA gene. Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie is a carrier, and women with the gene mutation are up to 90pc more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Despite undergoing a double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed as a precautionary measure, Hannigan was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2007.

Since then, she has battled the illness in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

This time around, it's cancer in the back of her head and neck.

"It sounds unusual, I know," she says, "but it's attacking my lymph nodes and the cancer likes to attack lymph nodes, so it can travel around my body."

Hannigan began a second round of radiation yesterday and will traipse in and out of St Vincent's Hospital every day for five weeks – a pretty exhausting routine for anyone.

There are many of us out there who would quite simply lack the mental strength to overcome such an invasive disease repeatedly, but for Hannigan it is the card she was dealt.

"I have this weakness that is the gene, so I have a much higher chance of it coming back. I am predisposed to it," she adds.

"I'm lucky that my prognosis is good, though, and the doctors are confident."

Despite the ordeal she has been put through, a profound and definitive positivity has emerged from fighting cancer for almost a decade. It led Hannigan to finding her calling in life, her writing.

Novel number seven is due to be released this month, and the award-winning author is currently jotting down potential plot lines for what will be her eighth hardback, which she plans to release some time later this year. Before the best-selling books, though, and before cancer became a familiar part of her existence, Hannigan was on a journey of self-discovery.

She started out as a chef, having trained at the Ballymaloe cookery school.

She then ran a catering business before going on to join an engineering company and eventually qualifying as a beauty therapist.

It was not until she was sick for the first time that she turned to writing, from her hospital bed.

"I really stumbled upon it as a way to keep my mind occupied and now it's my therapy," she says.

"Writing doesn't feel like work for me. It's funny, because I still feel like I'm scamming people for getting paid to do something I love doing."

By becoming a full-time writer, she was offered a platform from which to speak out about cancer and she did so, thoroughly, in her memoir Talk To The Headscarf, which was released in 2011.

It proved an inspirational read for many, who consequently sought advice and still do.

A huge volume of the queries are cosmetic – where to find an authentic-looking wig or the right make-up to mask a tired face.

"When you start chemotherapy your skin takes on this greenish hue and you have to remember that it's not like you're ill with a bug, this look can last for six months at a time, so you want to find a product that will make you look like yourself," she says.

"One of the most important things during that time is to make yourself feel better and stronger.


"I became an eye shadow merchant when I first went through chemo. I found that wearing dark colours on my eyes helped me look healthier, almost 'normal'.

"It's about pushing yourself to make the effort for 10 minutes in the morning to put on your face, and you wouldn't believe the difference it makes."

Hannigan enjoys a busy schedule. When she is not writing, attending doctor's appointments or responding to her fellow soldiers, her time is consumed by family – she and her husband have two teenage children.

But it is the household's latest addition – a nine-month-old cross between a golden retriever and a poodle – that brings this conversation to a close.

"I better go – the puppy has just eaten through the computer mouse," she tells me.

"My husband got him as a surprise for all of us, but really I think he just wanted a pet himself. Anyway, we'll chat again."

And no doubt we will.