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Sonia Kinsella: ‘I thought I had beaten this cancer but out of the blue it came back. This Christmas my family and I just want to make nice memories’

Co Down nurse and mother-of-two Sonia Kinsella, who has just been named Ulster GAA Coach of the Year, tells Stephanie Bell about the impact of her terminal cancer diagnosis and what her award means to her

Close family: Sonia and Philip with their children Cathal and Aisling and their dog
Close family: Sonia and Philip with their children Cathal and Aisling and their dog
Making memories: Sonia Kinsella at her home in Saul, Co Down
Strong support: Sonia and her husband Philip with dog Sasta
Sonia with dog Sasta
Sonia and Philip with their children Cathal and Aisling

By Stephanie Bell

Mother-of-two Sonia Kinsella is planning her last Christmas determined that it will be as normal as possible for her family. Normality and building special memories are now her focus as she and her family come to terms with a recent terminal cancer diagnosis.

The Co Down nurse was the toast of her home town of Saul this week after picking up the Ulster GAA coach of the year award and was thrilled when her local club sprang a surprise party to celebrate.

It is moments like these which are now more important than ever to Sonia as she aims to build as many memories as she can during what time she has left to live.

And the 47-year-old nurse, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago, is busy making plans to get the new GAA season’s training under way in January even though, as she says: “I won’t be here to see the season out.”

In a heartbreaking interview, Sonia talks about what it was like to be told that time is running out for her and just how big a part the GAA has played in her life during her cancer journey.

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Making memories: Sonia Kinsella at her home in Saul, Co Down

Sonia is married to Philip (47), a technical instructor, and they have two children, Aisling (17) and Cathal (15), who both play for their local club in Saul.

Still very raw after being told just a month ago that nothing more could be done for her, she recalls how doctors broke the news: “I have had lots of different types of chemo for the past two years until a month ago when I hit the end of the road and was told there was nothing more they could do.

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Sonia and Philip with their children Cathal and Aisling

“They threw everything at me. I must have had 25 chemos but the cancer has now spread throughout my body and I have four tumours in my brain. They just told me, ‘Sonia you have to go and live your life and make memories and live every day as if it is your last’.

“It does still feel like I am talking about someone else but you have to take it for what it is as you can’t do anything about it.”

Sonia enjoyed several years of being back to a good quality of life after her initial diagnosis with breast cancer only for a secondary tumour to return in her sternum three years ago.

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Strong support: Sonia and her husband Philip with dog Sasta

She was just 35-years-old and was working as a nursing sister in a local GP surgery when she found a lump in her breast.

“It came completely out of the blue,” she recalls. “I was diagnosed in that March 12 years ago and had surgery and nine months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and was back to work by Christmas.

“I really thought I was home in a boat and had all my regular check-ups. I passed my famous five-year mark and everything was fine.

“I was fitter than ever and was circuit training, running and doing the football with the kids.”

It was when Sonia was doing press-ups during her training one morning that a bone popped near her collarbone and she assumed it was just because she had overdone her workout.

Her GP wasn’t concerned at this stage and thought the bone would settle back into position itself.

However, when another bone popped on the other side of her neck a couple of months later she was referred immediately for a CT scan.

“Again, completely out of the blue, I was told I had a tumour behind my sternum,” Sonia says.

“That was February 2017 and I have had so many different chemotherapies since then.

“When they started the heavy duty drugs in November two years ago I had to give up work as I was vulnerable to infection. That was very, very hard because I loved my job, I genuinely did.

“I worked with brilliant GPs and a great team of nurses, and the patients were lovely. It was very difficult for me as I loved nursing.”

It was around the time of Sonia’s first diagnosis that she started coaching children in her local GAA club and she now coaches Saul’s senior ladies with her brother Frank Holland, who she says has taken the lead in recent months due to her ill-health.

Her family is steeped in the sport — daughter Aisling is on the senior ladies’ team, while son Cathal plays for Saul and Down and her husband Philip is also heavily involved in his local club.

Attending training sessions while going through chemo is a reflection of Sonia’s dedication and she says the sport has been a real lifeline during the last three years.

“Because you are running and shouting and roaring at the girls, the cancer goes into the background and it is just you shouting and roaring at them,” she says.

“The thoughts of cancer completely leave you and I would be really buzzing.

“You get sucked into a game or a training session so you can’t think about anything else.

“When that happens, there is more in the world than cancer. It forces me to be in the moment.

“There are some days when I feel down and can’t be bothered but going out to training helps get my head around it. I get home and I’m buzzing after it.

“I love the fact that my daughter plays and we can talk about tactics together. I always said that you can pick your soccer team but you can’t pick your Gaelic team because you are born into it and it is a very tight wee community.”

An unassuming yet highly valuable member of her local club, Sonia says she was embarrassed but chuffed to receive the Ulster GAA coach of the year award and overwhelmed when members threw her a surprise party last Monday night to celebrate.

She was given the accolade after 23 nominations were submitted recommending her for being “inspirational and influential” — something she admits she was not expecting.

“Oh my goodness, I found it very embarrassing because there is a lorry load of us in the club and every one of them does the same and more,” Sonia says.

“They lured me down on Monday night on the pretence of asking me to draw the lotto.

“I nearly fell over with shock when I walked in. There were around 200 people there of all ages and all my friends and young ones and it was just lovely. We had tea and mince pies and, for me, I was able to make more memories.”

Sonia is surrounded by a supportive family who are all, naturally, shattered by her prognosis.

Life now for her is about spending quality time with them and building lasting memories.

“My sister and two brothers have been fantastic and I have this great supportive network around me which makes such a difference,” she says.

“I want the kids to get on with their lives as normally as possible. Ash has a job and a good circle of friends and Cathal has his Gaelic football and they are continuing life as normal.

“They both go to St Patrick’s Grammar in Downpatrick who have been a phenomenal support, nothing is a bother to them and it is such a weight off my mind.

“It is still quite raw and we are trying to get our heads around it and I don’t want it to be like the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring, we have to address it and we do talk about it and we are very strong.

“This will be my last Christmas and I just want to do what we always do and make nice memories.

“Everyone comes to me and I am going to have 10 people for Christmas dinner this year and we are excited and looking forward to it and have the tree up and are preparing for it just like we always do.

“I just want to live life and get on with it and not take it for granted. I can prepare and make sure things are done and I can make memories.

“I always wanted to go to New York and I won’t get there now but we hopefully are going to get away somewhere for a few days in January.”

Her beloved football has also given her a focus and focusing on the everyday is how Sonia has found a way to cope.

“I am getting ready for the new season’s training which also starts in January and I am looking forward to that although I will not be here to see the season end,” she adds.

“I am definitely getting better shoes this year as the shoe on my right foot was letting water in last year. I am just trying to think positively. Nobody wants to see you sitting moping in the corner and I don’t want to be like that. It is what it is.”

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