Emma Han­ni­gan

HOW THE BEST­SELLING AU­THOR FOUGHT CAN­CER NINE TIMES – AND RE­FUSES TO LET IT GET THE BET­TER OF HER

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE -

Makeovers seem to be some­thing of a re­cent trend for Emma Han­ni­gan. The au­thor is perched on a newly pur­chased, bright yel­low seat in her of­fice, one of three ca­nary yel­low chairs sur­round­ing a new white ta­ble. Her own cre­ative space in a build­ing of en­gi­neer­ing of­fices – her dad’s is just across the hall – Emma took it upon her­self to re­dec­o­rate the high- ceilinged space. She’s painted it dove grey, and two walls are cov­ered with bulletin boards – empty, so far, aside from the mantra ‘I leave a trail of sparkle wher­ever I go….’

And Emma her­self is sparkling to­day, as usual, sport­ing a new hair­cut, her blond locks bobbed with a fringe. Dressed in a fit­ted, multi- coloured Fran & Jane dress – with per­fectly cho­sen ac­ces­sories – there’s no hint that this is a woman who’s been bat­tling can­cer for nearly a decade and is still un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy.

‘I lost all the back of my hair from ra­di­a­tion; all un­der­neath here, you can see all my fluff,’ she says, hold­ing up the blond locks at the back of her head. ‘It was gone from un­der here, and it was a lit­tle bit longer, there was a tiny bit just cov­er­ing here. So I went to Dy­lan Bradshaw, my amaz­ing hair­dresser. He said, “What you have to do is just chop it right up and get a fringe and stuff, and then your hair will look thicker.’ I’m just not used to do­ing things like that, but he was right, of course. She hasn’t had a fringe ‘since I was about four’. ‘It’s kind of a funny thing, but it cov­ers wrin­kles and all,’ jokes the 42 year old. ‘I still feel a bit kind of, “What? That’s my hair?”’

The of­fice re­dec­o­ra­tion is still a work in progress. ‘I just wanted it to be kind of calm, a place where I can def­i­nitely re­lax and write – which is prob­a­bly quite ad­verse to the way I started writ­ing,’ says the pro­lific au­thor, who has just re­leased one book, is edit­ing a sec­ond and is be­gin­ning a third. ‘I be­gan writ­ing in a hos­pi­tal bed, which is prob­a­bly re­ally good train­ing, be­cause I have this in­cred­i­ble abil­ity. Even if I’m sit­ting in the mid­dle of rush hour traf­fic and somebody handed me a lap­top, I’d be able to write, be­cause I’d be able to switch off ev­ery­thing around me.

‘I’m still hav­ing chemo ev­ery three weeks, so I do bring the lap­top with me. I can def­i­nitely do that. I’m cer­tainly much more pro­duc­tive when I’m in here. I did write from home. But in­evitably if you have kids and you’re at home, they think you’re there for them. Even as the kids get older, they’re 13 and 14 now, they still don’t re­ally com­pre­hend that.

‘It was con­stant, if I’m work­ing from home, “Please go away!” So this way, when I’m in work, I do what I have to do, and when I go home, it’s home space.

‘It’s dif­fi­cult – and then the wash­ing ma­chine stops and you think, “OK, I’ll just put in another wash” and the dish­washer fin­ishes, I’ll just do that, and the dog comes in and puts muck ev­ery­where so you wash the floor… If you’re not there and you can’t see it hap­pen­ing, it all still has to get done when you get home.’

While her son Sacha, 14, and daugh­ter Kim, 13, may not be the best at un­der­stand­ing the work/ home life com­pro­mise, they are in­cred­i­bly in­formed and ed­u­cated about can­cer – hav­ing ba­si­cally grown up with it as Emma bat­tled the dis­ease nine times. ‘My son was at Ir­ish col­lege last year down in Gal­way, and when he came back he said, “You know, some of the guys had cig­a­rettes and they were say­ing who wants to try cig­a­rettes”, so I just said, “Do you know that they give you can­cer? Why would you smoke? Smoking is so un­cool and gives you can­cer.’” And he said, “I said to them, ‘You know, one in three women are go­ing to get breast can­cer in their lives.’

‘I just thought, “Oh God, I’ve cre­ated a walk­ing bill­board!” I know a cou­ple of their friends’ mums have been di­ag­nosed with can­cer since; I’ve heard them on the phone say­ing, “It’ll

‘It’s about tak­ing the fear out of it’

be okay, she’ll be tired, and she might feel a bit sick, but it’ll be okay. It’ll be aw­ful, but don’t be frightened.”’

Emma says she has al­ways been vo­cal about the dis­ease and her treat­ment, and her chil­dren are al­ways sup­port­ive.

‘I had to in­ject my­self at one stage; I don’t know what round of chemo­ther­apy, but I kept get­ting in­fec­tions. They’ve th­ese amaz­ing pre­loaded in­jec­tions you can give to pa­tients, keep them in your fridge at home, pinch up your tummy and once a day with the in­jec­tion. Kim used to love giv­ing me the in­jec­tion, I think she was about ten at the time. She was say­ing, “Great! It’s your in­jec­tion time!” I was think­ing, “Oh God, be­cause she was like, let’s use it like a dag­ger.”

‘She was so un­per­turbed by it, which I sup­pose came from the fact that I said, “OK, th­ese things that are in the fridge, don’t touch them, don’t mess with them, they’re not scary, they’re for me. Don’t touch them.” They were like, “Show me what you’re go­ing to do with them.” And they’re like, “Cool.” So I just used to let them do the in­jec­tions.

‘I sup­pose it’s tak­ing the fear out of it, which I hope helps. I don’t know – come back to me in ten years!’ she jokes. Emma’s en­counter with can­cer be­gan when she was 32; her mother is one of nine, and three of Emma’s aunts were di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer, one los­ing the bat­tle. Her grand­mother had also had ovar­ian can­cer. The fam­ily were ap­proached about ge­netic test­ing to de­ter­mine whether other rel­a­tives were at risk, and both Emma and her mother were found to have the BrCa1 can­cer gene, which greatly in­creases the risk that a woman will de­velop breast or ovar­ian can­cer.

Her mother opted to be mon­i­tored, but Emma – with two young chil­dren at such a young age – opted for the ma­jor step of a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy.

‘I knew what could hap­pen,’ she says. ‘When my aunt died, she had three chil­dren; we took the two girls, her son went to my aunt who had boys of sim­i­lar age. So I gained two sis­ters when I was 18, they’re amaz­ing, they’re fan­tas­tic.’

But Emma wanted to have bet­ter odds for her own health. ‘It would have brought me from an 85% chance down to risk of 5%, or less than a nor­mal lady walk­ing around,’ she says.

She had the same op­er­a­tion later un­der­taken by An­gelina Jolie, and con­grat­u­lates the ac­tress for rais­ing aware­ness.

‘I thought she was bril­liant; I re­ally applauded her for com­ing out, be­cause she had the same surgery I had – which means that she kept her skin and her nip­ples, which I did too. And for any­body look­ing on, even in an evening gown, it’s not ap­par­ent you’d had any­thing done. She didn’t have to tell any­one; she could have just done this and not said any­thing. But she chose to do it be­cause of her aunt and be­cause she has lost peo­ple to breast can­cer... I thought that was re­ally brave of her,’ Emma says.

Sadly for Emma, de­spite the op­er­a­tion and un­be­knownst to her or her team, can­cer had al­ready spread in her body – and a few months after the op­er­a­tion it was found un­der her arm and neck. After un­der­go­ing treat­ment for that, she would be di­ag­nosed eight more times with the dis­ease’s spread or re­cur­rence. She con­tin­ues to be treated with chemo­ther­apy and says she be­lieves she’ll be tak­ing drugs in­def­i­nitely to ward off the dis­ease.

‘But I’m rid­ing on the crest of this new wave that is can­cer in our day and age,’ Emma says. ‘My kids now, when I tell them – be­cause I’ve al­ways been very vo­cal – when I say to them, “You know, the can­cer is back,” they just say, “OK, Mum, it’ll be fine, be­cause you know Doc­tor David will have more treat­ment. He’ll give you that, it’s go­ing to be rough for a while, we’ll prob­a­bly have a few take­aways for din­ner be­cause you’re too tired to cook. You’ll be fine.” And they hug me and they go off and con­tinue what they were do­ing, be­cause that is what they see can­cer as. They don’t re­mem­ber a time when I didn’t have it.’

She says: ‘Peo­ple still un­for­tu­nately die from can­cer, but so many peo­ple don’t. That’s why I love to give in­ter­views, to talk about it, to say, “You know, I’ve just beaten it for the ninth time. I’m not dif­fer­ent to any­body else. I don’t have spe­cial pow­ers, I’m not bet­ter at it than somebody else. That’s not the case. The fact of the mat­ter is that medicine is mov­ing at such a swift pace all the time, all of the re­search. Peo­ple give to Breast Can­cer Ire­land – I’m an am­bas­sador for them – I know it’s such a mine­field to so many peo­ple. They think, “If I text 50300, it’ll give €4, is that re­ally go­ing to make any dif­fer­ence? It does. I’m liv­ing proof of that, be­cause the chemo­ther­apy I’m on at the mo­ment didn’t ex­ist when I was di­ag­nosed the third time even. That was 2009.

‘Can­cer doesn’t re­ally in­ter­fere with my life; I’m tired for a day or so when I have chemo­ther­apy. I’m very stub­born, I’ve al­ways driven my­self in and out to hos­pi­tal, which I prob­a­bly shouldn’t have some of the time. I de­cided quite a few years ago, which does make some peo­ple smile, I de­cided can­cer was not go­ing to de­fine me. Can­cer was not go­ing to change who I am and what I do with my life – now that didn’t work out to­tally, be­cause I have changed my life, be­cause I’ve started writ­ing and that’s be­cause I was sick. But it hasn’t taken away my spirit; it hasn’t changed me very much as a per­son.

‘The rea­son I’m able to do it is be­cause of the ad­vances in medicine. I’m very lucky that each time I’m di­ag­nosed that there’s a new treat­ment I can use. There are more avail­able; I’ve been re­li­ably in­formed by my on­col­o­gist that, should it come back another few times, we’ll still have some­thing to ham­mer it.’

In the mean­time, Emma keeps go­ing from strength to strength pro­fes­sion­ally; her lat­est book, The Heart of Win­ter, is out this month, and she’s work­ing on a new one based on the story of her grand­mother. As Emma ham­mers can­cer, read­ers and her beloved fans will un­doubt­edly see more and more from her and, as her of­fice pro­claims, her ‘trail of sparkle’ looks set to only shine brighter.

‘They say, “It’s your in­jec­tion time, cool”’

Emma Han­ni­gan in Wick­low and, left, with ac­coun­tant Damien Gal­lagher at a Strictly Against Breast Can­cer dance event last year. Be­low, Emma’s lat­est novel and Emma launch­ing a breast care app with Katie Tay­lor

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