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'I chose to have both my breasts removed... but I still went on to have breast cancer'

Bestselling author Emma Hannigan doesn't think she is braver than anyone else or better at cancer than anyone else, she tells Barry Egan. She's just thankful her chemo is "melting the nodes by the day"

Published 16/07/2016

Emma Hannigan
Emma Hannigan

Dad sticks his head around the door. His daughter, who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow in a certain light, makes the introductions. I ask him what was the best-selling author like when she was growing up.

"When Emma was young, she always knew her own mind," Philip Hannigan says. "She could always talk her way out of anything - not much has changed ..."

In truth, it's not so much 'talk' as 'fight' her way out of anything, although fight is an insufferably trite word to describe her battle, as Emma's cancer has come back 10 times since she was first diagnosed with it in 2007.

The day I met her for lunch in her office in Bray, the coastal resort just south of Dublin - around the corner from the home she shares with husband Cian, 16-year-old son Sacha and 14-year-old daughter Kim, plus cat Tom and a dog named Herbie - self-proclaimed "cancer-vixen" Emma had just come from yet another session of chemo.

For such a successful, and award-winning writer, Emma Hannigan isn't remotely self-absorbed, certainly not the imperious narcissist of her trade: some snobs might sniffily - even in a misogynistic manner - refer to Emma's engaging novels as 'chick-lit'. Would they call Colm Toibin dick-lit?

In conversation, she calls herself Shrek - "because chemo makes me go a green shade of pale".

"I have also looked like a boiled chipmunk. I've had some very unattractive moments in my life."

Emma doesn't look anything like Shrek today. She is full of summery positivity, saying that "after many months of pain and disappointment with a drug that didn't work - a new type of medication called a parp inhibitor - my current chemotherapy is literally melting the nodes by the day".

"I'm a huge fan of Caroline Aherne and I was devastated to hear she died of cancer. I know I'm one of the lucky ones," adds Emma, who was born on September 25, 1972.

Echoing Lyndon B Johnson's philosophy that "yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose", Emma, you imagine, somehow always believes that she has tomorrow already won.

One of the most positive women you could meet, Emma was diagnosed with the 'faulty' BRCA1 gene in August, 2005. A year later she chose to have a bi-lateral mastectomy and a bi-lateral oophorectomy to prevent, it was hoped, cancer.

Emma started writing when she was recovering from preventative surgery. "It was a spleen-venting exercise at first," Emma says, adding that she realised she loved writing so she turned those musings into her first novel, Designer Genes, in 2009.

In June 2007, Emma was diagnosed with breast cancer, "in the neck, shoulder and under my arm".

How did Emma feel that after having the preventative surgery she got cancer anyway?

"That would go down in history as what's called a bummer. It probably should've shocked me more than it did, but I guess I was in the peripherals of the cancer zone already. So I just entered that zone totally. I knew I'd done all I could to avoid cancer, so I knew I could either accept the diagnosis and embrace the treatment or spend the rest of my life looking back in anger," she says.

"I don't ever look back, only forwards. It's stood to me I think."

She saw off the cancer with the help of her oncologist Dr David Fennelly and the team at Blackrock Clinic - "The Blackrock Hotel!" - in Dublin, but in 2008 the cancer returned, as it has all-too-many times since.

Asked what was the worst time during the last decade, the worst time out of her 10 cancer returns, Emma Hannigan looks at me and says without hesitation: "The past six months. I was in constant pain.

"It was nauseating and excruciating, but for me the draining exhaustion it caused was the worst part because it meant I was very limited with what I could do.

"Also the nerve-blocker medicine I was on meant I was woozy and found it hard to write. Not a fun time in my life, it's safe to say," she smiles.

"It was exhausting and for the first time in 10 years it meant I was totally flummoxed by my cancer. Up until that point, I had always managed to keep it in the background where it belongs.

"The lumps were getting bigger. They were in my neck. So I could actually see them," Emma says of her most recent cancer diagnosis last October - putting my hand on her neck to feel the lumps. "The medicine was making me really sick. Yet it wasn't working."

How did Emma cope psychologically with cancer coming back for the tenth time?

"I did what I always do and talked to my oncologist, who assured me that there were further options. I trust Dr David Fennelly implicitly, so that sorted the medical worry side of it. For my own head space, I wrote a novel," she says, referring to her tenth novel, The Perfect Gift.

"Now I feel as if I've climbed a huge mountain and I'm scaling down the other side, back to a place where I feel safe and I know my health is returning."

As is her sense of humour ...

Emma says that when she was on the radiation table two years ago in St Vincent's Hospital, she found herself escaping in her mind to Brown Thomas on Grafton Street and to Patrick Guilbaud's restaurant on Upper Merrion Street. The image inspires an extended bout of laughter from Emma and myself. It is black humour at its darkest

I ask her - in a tongue-in-cheek way - what does it say about Emma Hannigan that she thought of BTs and Patrick Guilbaud's, and not death and leaving her children and husband behind in this world ...

"Oh Jesus! I'm so glad you asked me this. I'd hate you to think that was the important thing on my mind at that time. It absolutely wasn't! My fault, I obviously wasn't clear. I wrote a Christmas book during that time," she says, referring to The Heart of Winter, adding that the character she was writing at the time, Lainey, was a good-time girl.

"So I was planning her next chapter. And my way of escaping the horror of the radiation sessions - 50 in a row - was by writing the life of a girl who couldn't be less like me, if you understand?

"She was merely doing the total opposite of what I was doing. So it was a total escape for me, mind wise. The pain during those sessions was excruciating so the nurses used to play really loud music for me to distract me and I would write in my head."

Emma says that the reason she probably doesn't allow herself to think of her nearest and dearest at those awful times because she ends up "a weeping mess".

Another example of a similar situation, Emma continues, was when she was speaking to the anaesthesiologist prior to her double mastectomy in the prep room, "where they get you ready for surgery".

"He was trying to keep me calm and have a friendly chat about my kids before he put me under and I had to politely ask if we could talk about something mundane.

"So we chatted about shoes. God bless him, he was a lovely man. So I guess I quash the really tough emotions while I'm in the throes of horrible situations.

"I only go to Guilbaud's on very special occasions and I don't actually shop in BTs much at all. I adore fashion and shopping with my mum but we're more high street gals I'm afraid! In fact, Coast dress me for all photo shoots and occasions!" she laughs.

Emma's greatest fear is that she'll have "to leave my children and family prematurely".

"It's something that used to consume me in the beginning, but I had to learn to push those thoughts aside and try to cling onto hope instead.

"My family keep me going and I have never felt like giving up because of them. They are my inspiration and my reason for living. BTs and fancy meals out aren't even in the shadows when it comes to my priorities," she says, referring to Cian, Kim and Sacha.

Her two children and her husband apart, Emma's other priorities slightly lower than the list are "shoes and having my own money".

"I think that is very important after being married for 18 years. Cian wouldn't understand if I said: 'Could I have 300 quid for a pair of shoes?'"

How would he react?

"He would vomit and then say no. So it is much easier if you just don't tell him things like that. So, it's my money and my shoes."

How many pairs of shoes does she have?

"About 80. I don't have enough, though. You can never have enough shoes. He probably has a similar amount of running shoes," she says of her triathlon-competing and alpha-male other-half, Cian McGrath, the owner ("and slave" - his words) of Base 2 Race, an athletics and triathlon store in Ballymount on the south side of Dublin.

So Emma and her husband have both got similar fetishes?

"It is all about feet," she laughs. "Actually, if you even mention about touching Cian's feet, he will scream. He hates feet."

Emma, however, is big on all things feet-related, chief among them as well as shoes, is reflexology, and she attends regular sessions.

"I find it really relaxing. I love it, but there is a lot of complementary stuff that I don't go near. I did the Chinese medicine stick-waving thing many years ago and it ended up that it was interfering with the chemotherapy. It was coating my cells and stopping the chemotherapy from working. I think it is really dangerous.

"So I am not in favour of doing anything like that without telling my doctor first. And I am not in favour of just living on juice and standing on one leg on Bray Head and only eating green things."

Her future husband was two years below her in school, St Gerard's School in Bray. She knew him to see, but they had never had a proper conversation in all their mutual time in that school. This is despite Cian's mother teaching Emma ballet for 12 years in at the same school.

When she met him that fateful night in a Dublin nightclub in February, 1997, Cian introduced himself from the stage as she bopped on the dance-floor by putting his foot on her head. "How romantic!"

Tender-hearted or not, they got married on June 4, 1998 and have two children. The night before Emma was due to have her second child Kim in Holles Street Hospital in the city centre in September, 2001, Cian was actually in St Vincent's Hospital on Merrion Road.

"My parents had to drop Cian into hospital on the way in to me because he had gone out the night before with my brother, who doesn't drink, and he fell over a wall and broke his ankle. As I went into labour, I heard the sound of clip-clop, clip-clop, and I looked up and it was Cian on crutches. It was just as the baby's head was emerging ..."

Emma was a self-admitted "nightmare" growing up. When she was 14, she had an accident when she drank a bottle of vodka with her older brother Tim's friend in the back garden while her parents were out for dinner. Emma thought she would be sober by the time they came home from dinner.

"As you do!" Emma laughs now, three decades later. Her parents put her straight to bed when they got home. Her parents had to first take out Emma's contact lenses because "my eyes were rolling".

The next morning her dad woke Emma up at 6am and had her march up and down Bray sea-front. When exhausted Emma returned home, her parents immediately bombarded her with reverse psychology - beginning with the offer of a glass of vodka with her breakfast.

"Look, if you want to drink, there you go," they said to her. "You can have it for breakfast. You can bring a flask into school. You might get sent home if you're drunk, but you go for it."

Emma hasn't touched vodka since. She gets emails from people all the time that begin with, "if you drank" and end with, "it could cure your cancer". The latest cancer-cure is lemons. "Just in case you didn't know that," Emma smiles, wryly. "F**k off."

"I think you are meant to eat the entire lemon, because it is the rind that has the stuff and you are meant to squeeze the juice and eat the rind. And suddenly you would be cured of cancer. It is actually scary because people will believe it and come off chemotherapy to eat lemons. Probably the only time I really do what I'm told is when I'm hospital."

Does Emma do what her husband tells her to do?



"Sometimes. He doesn't do what he's told either. We don't really tell each other what to do. I don't think he has ever said to me 'can I go and meet my friend for a pint?' or 'can I go for a cycle?'"

Despite her husband's athletic prowess, he is not one of those profoundly boring men for whom his body is a temple.

"He drinks pints of gin & tonic and eats big packets of crisps. and large bags of Maltesers. He is like a pork steak with eyes. He is just solid muscle. If I ate half of the crap he ate I would be the size of a bus. He burns it all off. He gets up every morning at 5am and swims for an hour-and-a-half in Shoreline in Greystones before he goes to work. On a Sunday, he goes for 'a nice cycle' - that's five hours."

Has she turned into his mother? When her husband returns from a five-hour cycle does Emma rub Sudocrem on poor diddums Cian's sore bottom?

"No! No! They must have different built bottoms than the rest of us. Maybe your bottom hardens over the years. But he has so much muscle. It is all rock-hard muscle."

What's it like being married to a Mamil?

"A middle-aged man in lycra? It's all good. It's his thing."

Emma's thing is writing books that sell by the truckload. Does she think that without the writing she would have cracked up?

"Probably. I'm the type of person who needs to work. It is complete escapism. When I'm doing the characters and the story, I am not focussed on cancer."

Emma's new novel The Perfect Gift is an exploration, she says, of "the complex yet powerful relationships between mothers and daughters".

"My children are my greatest gift in life and I tried to channel that love and emotion in this story."

Her mother Denise is, Emma says, "one of the most accepting people I know".

"She's a true lady and exudes elegance. She's someone I have always looked up to. She's always supported me and encouraged me. She's my rock and definitely my shopping partner in crime! I don't know what I'd do without her."

Emma doesn't think she is braver than anyone else or better at cancer than anyone else.

"I just get on with things. That's all. And I have a lot of reason to."

The Perfect Gift, published by Hachette Books Ireland, is out now in paperback, £12.99

Belfast Telegraph

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