When Emma Hannigan found out that she was carrying the BRAC1 gene she was told that she had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer. Despite the preventative surgery cancer struck anyway. But Emma has fought and won against cancer seven times now and she will continue to do so.
With a strong sense of humour and enormous personal strength, Emma's memoir Talk to the Headscarf is a remarkable story of how you can overcome even your worst fears. We caught up with Emma and asked her a few questions about her experiences in fighting cancer. . .
Hi Emma, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the challenges that you have had to face since discovering that you carry the BRAC1 gene ?
I’m thirty-eight years old. I am a wife to Cian and mum to our son Sacha (11) and daughter Kim (9). We live in the seaside town of Bray, Co Wicklow, Ireland. I was coming out of the baby-fog years and was ready to embrace the next phase of my life, which I thought might involve working around school times and dare I say it, having a life outside toddlers!
But as most of us know, things don’t always go to plan. I believe that life gives us choices. Choices allow us make decisions. Those decisions chart the course of our lives. Let me put a question to you dear reader regarding choices, decisions and life’s path. Picture the scene if you will – you are informed that you carry a gene that predisposes you to an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of ovarian cancer. Further more, you are informed that surgery would reduce that risk to 5%. What would you do?
In 2005, I was faced with that exact scenario. To understand the background to my decision I would like to take you back to the outbreak of World War II. An Austrian family consisting of a husband, wife and two daughters Melanie and Anneliese, from a well-educated and wealthy background had a choice. They could stay where they were, risking their lives or flee and become refugees, leaving everything they owned behind them. The chose the latter. They survived, while most of their relations perished. Those people were my Great Grandparents. Their eldest daughter Melanie was my maternal grandmother. Anneliese my Grandaunt. They landed in Bray, Co Wicklow in Southern Ireland where they rebuilt their lives. My Grandmother married and had nine children, eight girls and a boy. Her second daughter is my mother Denise. Fast forward to the end of the eighties. Anneliese my Grandaunt sadly died of ovarian cancer. In the early nineties three of my mums sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer. One tragically died and two thankfully survived.
Due to this strong presence of cancer, we were approached by a genetic testing facility and asked to take part in a test to establish whether we carried a defective gene. So in 2005 mum and I went forward for testing and discovered we were in fact gene positive for Brca 1. This stands for breast cancer one. We had an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of ovarian cancer. We were given two options to deal with this news. Firstly we could go for monitoring. Or secondly we could have radical surgery involving a double mastectomy and both ovaries removed. This would reduce the potential risk to 5%.
I bring you back to my initial question above. What would you do? Mum decided to be monitored. I am delighted to tell you she is still alive and well and has never been diagnosed with cancer. I hope that never changes. I decided to have the surgery. For me it was an easy decision and it felt right. In 2006 I had all my operations and thought I had pipped cancer at the post. I thought, yes I’ve done it! But before I could perform a victory dance, cancer struck for the first time in 2007. I had treatment and beat it. Since then I have battled and beaten cancer a grand total of seven times. Currently I am battling for the eighth time.
What would you say to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?
The very first thing I want to say is try not to panic. Huh? I hear you say. Easier said than done. Yes, I know. I’ve no doubt you are scared, because believe me I was too. Let’s face it I’d done everything in my power to avoid getting cancer. I would have gone to any length to steer clear of the dreaded disease. I understand the fear that begins in your heart and courses it’s way through every fibre of your being until you think you can barely breathe. I’ve been there eight times. It’s not fun. I wouldn’t recommend it to a friend. I can think of a million other ways of building character than facing the fear that a disease like cancer throws at you. But the fact is this. Many of us in this day and age are either affected directly by cancer, or someone they know and love is. I’m here to tell you that there isn’t always a negative outcome with cancer.
I’m not telling you I’m battling for the eighth time to frighten the living daylights out of you. I’m telling you because I want you to know I’m still here. The score so far is Cancer 0 – Emma 7. In a few months that score will read cancer 0 – Emma 8. I promise. I used to think that once a person was diagnosed with cancer they ought to drive directly to the local DIY store to buy a shovel, to start digging their own grave. But thankfully I have discovered that this is no longer the case in a growing number of patients. Cancer medicine and treatments have come such a long way since my darling Aunts passed away.
So, if you’ve just been diagnosed, please take heart from my story. I am still here. I still enjoy my life. I am still a wife, mother, daughter and friend. I am still the vivacious and fun loving person I always have been. I can’t choose whether or not I get cancer, but I can decide to be positive, happy and to stand up and fight. I am fully aware that I am one of the lucky ones. My prognosis is good, my cancer is treatable and I am in a position to beat it. But I want you to know that in spite of the challenges I’ve had over the last few years, I live a full and happy life. Cancer has invaded my body several times, but it has never taken away my spirit.
Is there something/someone that helps to pick you up on the bad days?
I generally treat cancer with the irreverence it deserves. I try to give it as little ‘head space’ as I can. I embrace my treatments and am so lucky to have a dedicated clever and amazing medical team looking after me. I eat a healthy and balanced diet. I try to take regular exercise. I have an incredibly supportive husband who has never left my side. My children are my angels on earth and give me the best reason to get out of bed each and every day. My parents extended family and friends are second to none. I know I am loved and supported.
The thing that helps, me and all the people I love, get through the dark days is honesty and open speech. I talk. Simple as that. Cancer is not a taboo subject in my life. My house is not a home filled with whispers or unspoken fears. Cian and I talk openly to our children, family and friends about the ups and downs of the disease. I have tried to ensure that cancer has never been allowed to press a mute button on my life. I firmly believe that by being vocal about my cancer, I have made my own situation easier to cope with. I have received such incredible support, love and help from my family and friends. By telling them how I feel, or even what’s happening to me, they can understand and relate to what’s going on. I know cancer is still a taboo subject for many people, but take it from me – talking helps. Through talking and being myself I have never allowed cancer to worm its way inside my head. That’s not to say that I spend all day everyday warbling on about being sick or cancer. Far from it! But if I ever feel the need, I know I can speak about it. As a result I feel I’m still in charge of my own happiness.
Your sense of humour shines through your book and makes it an uplifting and inspirational account of the fight against cancer. How has humour helped and do have you any funny stories that have made the difficult experience a little bit more manageable?
Laughter is the best medicine, of that fact I have no doubt. I happen to have a rather dark sense of humour, which I know has stood to me over the years. Often grave situations can evoke deep emotion in all of us. Sometimes we find humour in the most unexpected places. I remember taking my toddler son to the funeral of a neighbour. My idea was to pop in the back of the church, wave to the grieving family as they entered and slip away before Sacha became noisy and restless. As the coffin passed, adorned with sympathy cards, Sacha burst into a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ The grieving family turned to us and peeled with laughter. Needless to say I wanted to ground to open and swallow me whole, but my son’s innocence had lifted the hearts of people in pain.
Since I’ve been sick, crazy as it may sound, I’ve had some laugh out loud moments. My wig had a mind of it’s own. I live beside a beautiful beach where there’s a promenade, perfect for bracing walks. One very windy morning, I was feeling a little blue and I knew I needed to brave the inclement weather and gulp some cleansing salty sea air. I had just deposited the children at school and wasn’t adequately prepared for the outdoors. So I had to concoct a warm outfit from the wardrobe available to me i.e. the floor of my always filthy car (affectionately known as the ‘skip’ by my husband.) So I pulled a Spiderman wooly hat over my wig, zipped up my puffa coat, pulled on odd gloves (there’s never a matching pair in my car) consisting of one cough medicine pink Hello Kitty creation for the left hand and a plain black mitten for the right. A snot green discount store feather boa left over from St Patrick’s day (I know it was vile, but feathers are incredibly warm) completed the hideous ensemble. I prayed I wouldn’t meet anyone I knew and emerged from my car looking like a deranged drag queen.
As I walked southwards, the wind was behind me and bundled me along, creating a wonderful sense of skippy bouncy freedom. Once I turned to walk back to the car, it was all a different story. As I walked into the wind, the blustering gusts took my breath away and made my eyes instantly water. I stomped as determinedly as I could and made very slow progress. Half way down the promenade in Bray there’s a wonderful old-fashioned bandstand. One of those ones with a pitched roof open sides and wooden floor. The twisted brightly painted metal pillars around the edge make it look like a merry-go-round without the horses inside. It’s quaint, pretty and that day had attracted the attention of a busload of Japanese tourists. As I jack-hammered along the prom I looked up to gaze at the gaggle of eager photo snapping folk. A particularly strong gust of wind howled towards me forcing me to a standstill as it simultaneously whipped my Spiderman hat complete with my wig high into the air and over to the side of the bandstand. Hopping over the railings, with my boa blowing like two ribbons of furry phlegm I waved with my Hello Kitty glove and scooped up my hair with the black mitten. I’m not sure how many of the tourists actually photographed that moment, but I’m fairly confident that it wasn’t many! The sea of astonished and stunned faces that met my startled gaze made me laugh like a hyena. As I yanked my hair and hat back onto my head and staggered back to my car, I snorted with laughter. I knew I’d done the right thing by going for a walk that day. I hate exercise and people are always assuring me it’ll make me feel better – do you know what? That day they were dead right! My walk cheered me up no end! I can’t vouch that the busload of tourists felt the same way, but I ended up in a great mood!
Has writing it all down helped to make sense of your fight against cancer – what message would you like to give to people reading your memoir?
Writing is my therapy. No two ways about it. I started writing when I was diagnosed at first. Logging events as they occurred transpired into a novel. Once I began writing I forgot to stop! I adore regaling stories. Writing Talk to the Headscarf was an amazing experience for me. I had to go back to the very beginning of my fight with cancer and comb back over all the ups and downs I’ve survived. Some of it was painful and sad, but most of it was the exact opposite. It made me realize how far I’ve come with my fight. How much I’ve overcome and how wonderful my life continues to be. I want my story to give hope and dispel fear. I want everyone to know that cancer doesn’t always win. I want people to see for themselves through my story that just because life throws you a curve ball, doesn’t mean it’s game over.
We all have struggles these days, whether it’s financially, physically or mentally. The grass isn’t greener in anyone else’s garden. We all have adversities to overcome. But positivity and believing in the light at the end of the tunnel goes a long way to turning even the most awful circumstances around. Smiling is also free, it’s not even taxed. So have a go and do it as often as possible. With limited energy due to my chemotherapy, I’ve figured out that it’s less exhausting to be cheerful than gloomy! Even if you don’t feel like skipping or dancing, start with a smile, you’ll be surprised the difference it’ll make to you and those around you. I know life is for living and enjoying, so I’m off to do just that! I’d love you to read my memoir Talk to the Headscarf, I laughed out loud as I wrote it (which is probably a sign of madness – telling yourself jokes and laughing at them?!) and I hope you’ll find it uplifting too. I promise it’s not a depressing book about being bald and vomiting, and it’s full of stories depicting how I’ve given cancer the two fingers. A bit rude I know, but hey, cancer isn’t my friend.
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