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