'Actually, I'm a better nurse than I thought I would be'
Unknown to viewers, BBC Newsline anchorwoman Donna Traynor (42) has spent the past few months helping her husband, Ronan Kelly, battle throat cancer. She tells Gráinne McCarry about the shock of his diagnosis - and how they're keeping a sense of normality
When BBCNI Newsline presenter Donna Traynor's husband broke the news that he might have throat cancer, her first reaction was one of total shock.
But that was quickly followed by a steely determination to be at her partner's side no matter what the future might hold.
"It was like a surreal moment," recalls Donna. "It was happening, but it hadn't really registered up in my brain."
The biopsy results were confirmed the following week. Yes, her husband had a tumour on his right vocal chord. However, it was in its early stages and was treatable.
He wasn't going to die. Those words were all that she needed to hear - the light at the end of the tunnel that she was searching for.
" Whatever the future held we would get through it," says Donna, matter of factly. "To me, we were starting off from a positive position - there was no point in being negative ... it only drags you down."
Her calm and collected reaction to the news is, she believes, down to her two decades of experience in live TV presenting - a job where a level head is most definitely required.
"Everyone has their own way of dealing with things and I think it is because of my job that I am the way that I am," she says.
"I've been trained to keep a level head when everything around me is going wrong. All hell could be breaking loose in the studio," she smiles knowingly, "but the viewers will never find out because it's part and parcel of my job to remain composed at all times ... it's part and parcel of me. I suppose I applied that to Ronan having cancer."
But Donna, who was born in Lisburn and grew up in Dublin, isn't denying it's been tough.
Ronan quit U105 radio station last year but still runs a media training company.
And, explaining the enormity of the situation facing her husband, Donna says: " For people whowork in broadcasting, their voice is their life - they can't function without it
Still, they are evidently not the sort of couple likely to burden others with their worries, doubts and fears.
"On the outside, we remain calm and focused and we are determined to remain positive and upbeat about it ... that's not to say we aren't crying on the inside."
Since Ronan's cancer was confirmed at the beginning of April, Donna has continued to front the BBCNI evening news bulletins, proof, if ever it was needed, of how determined she is for life to continue as normal in the Traynor-Kelly household. It is clear that cancer is not going to be allowed to take over their lives.
" We both need our own space to reflect on what is happening, time apart from each other," she explains.
"I do that by going to work and trying to keep a sense of normality to our lives.
"It's important to get the balance right and work was a distraction for me. Also, it gave me time to research head and neck cancers away from Ronan and read up on it. But, aside from Newsline, everything else I was involved in, I cancelled."
She may be able to control her emotions. However, Donna is only too aware that everything else is out of her hands.
"Throughout the whole process I can honestly say that neither Ronan nor I have shed a tear. What's the point? That is not to take away from the fact that it has been very difficult at times," she admits.
"There are times when I need to be by myself, to think things over and get away from it all. It's like an inner trauma. How the stress of it affects you I don't really know ... " she trails off.
Donna doesn't think twice about getting up repeatedly through the night with Ronan when he can't breathe or is experiencing a coughing fit.
She is his partner - and that means 'in sickness and in health'. Besides, as she puts it herself, she is not the one with cancer so whatever discomfort she is experiencing is nothing like having to contend with the disease.
"There were a few setbacks when he was hospitalised twice,"she says. "The second time he was coughing up blood and tissue.
" I was remaining calm for Ronan, at the same time panic was running through my veins. We were told to expect this and there's no point in panicking externally, you have to be matter of fact about it and get to the hospital.
"My family and friends know what I'm like - I take everything onboard but I panic into myself."
Alongside nursing Ronan back to good health, Donna is fully aware that she needs to look after her own well-being.
"Part of me thinks about what will happen if I fall asunder, who will look after Ronan then? I have to take care of myself and look after myself properly in order to give Ronan all the support that I can."
She describes with great mirth her surprise at how well her husband adapted to his treatments: "You know what men are like, when they have a cold they think they have pneumonia!
"To be honest, Ronan was a better patient than I thought he would be and I was a better nurse than I thought I would be!"
On a more serious note, she adds: "I think he withheld some of his trauma from me. " This is my first experience of someone in my immediate family having cancer so everything is new to me. We're very much learning together.
" And it does feel eerily quiet not hearing his voice all the time in the house."
At present, Ronan is concentrating on strengthening his voice and preserves it by only talking when he really needs to.
"I'm deaf in one ear which doesn't really help things as he could be whispering to me and I don't hear him," says Donna.
"It's hard for him when we're in a big group and he wants to join in on the conversations, he has to stop and think, 'Should I speak now or save my voice for when I really need it?' Sometimes by the time he's gathered his energy to speak the moment has passed."
"We do spend a lot of time with each other and it is frustrating for Ronan not to have his voice as he is very much a joker and story teller. We have opposite personalities - he tells jokes, I can't remember jokes. He is the chatterbox and I'm the serious one or so he says ... maybe his jokes just aren't as funny as he thinks they are."
The couple, who married in 1992, first met when Donna, then just 21, was a student on work experience at Downtown Radio, where Ronan, seven years her senior, was a DJ. "To think I was just a child when we first met!" she says mischievously.
" It was 1986 and I thought I was so trendy coming over from university in England with my clothes from the high street shops we didn't have here ... but apparently I looked quite odd."
She pauses to reflect on days gone by and begins to laugh hysterically: "Ronan thought he was Tom Selleck with his moustache, open shirt and his medallion showing ... all the women queueing up to meet him. He thought he was hot stuff!"
"I was hot!" Ronan interrupts from across the living room of their south Belfast home. "She looked like a sack of flour tied in the middle. I hated they way she dressed ... and she thought she was trendy - trendy!"
"Ah, he worked quick," she jokes, in her softly spoken accent. "We only met on the Monday and we were on our first date by Wednesday!"
The pair kept in touch by letter and phone when Donna returned to her studies. Ronan would call her on the red telephone box close to her student digs at a pre-arranged time.
Donna began her broadcasting career with RTE in Dublin before moving to BBCNI in 1989. Five years later, when the IRA announced its ceasefire, it was Donna, reporting for Radio Ulster, who broke the news to listeners.
"We got married in October 1992 in Dublin when Ronan was working for UTV and I was with BBCNI and our honeymoon was a tour of the Far East. The rest as they say is history," she recalls.
"We work well as a team, we work together and when something happens, it's always a test.
Faith has also helped."I have prayed," says Donna, "and hopefully He or She up above has been listening. I'm lucky that I have very close family and friends. They have been very supportive, too, and have kept us in their prayers."
Donna gestures to the many cards around the room, stretching from one corner to the other and ranging from jokey Get Well messages to Mass bouquets.
There are too many to count, but they all wish Ronan a speedy recovery. They mean a lot to him, she acknowledges.
As part of her job, Donna has interviewed cancer medics and patients, including Dr Russell Houston, clinical director at the Belfast City Hospital's Cancer Clinic, who was part of the expert team that treated Ronan.
"However, that was in the BBC Newsline studio when you're one step removed from the situation," she explains. "I can honestly say that no matter how many times I covered cancer in work that I never thought it was going to happen to me."
As the interview draws to a close Donna stresses: "Carry out the appropriate checks regularly and don't ignore what your body is trying to tell you.
"Your body keeps a score of what goes on in your life, and if you think there's something wrong then maybe there is."
In the meantime, Ronan faces five years of further check-ups - and their focus is on remaining positive.
Donna adds: "There's no point in us dwelling on how or why it Ronan got cancer. The fact is he did get it - and we just have to get on with dealing with it together."