'Never had wedding vows been thought about more deeply. I knew I had surgery coming. I had this crazy notion that I'd die'
She worked at French Vogue and the iconic fashion house of Azzedine Alaia as well as designing gowns for many celebrities, but exactly a year ago, designer Helen Cody was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following a year of treatment, including a double mastectomy, she tells Emily Hourican why she feels lucky
Designer Helen Cody is talking about what she dubs "2018, the cancer year". We are sitting in the light-filled kitchen of her city centre home, with two small dogs, Helen's "personal trainers". And indeed, barely two months after finishing treatment, she has a remarkable serenity and a glow to her. "I feel like it was an out-of-body experience at this point, because I feel so well, so strong," she says.
"I'm walking four or five kilometres every day. It's quite meditative to do that in the morning. It's a brisk walk, I build up a sweat. The dogs get great exercise, I get time to think and to process everything that goes on in my life. So by the time I get to my studio, I'm completely on it. It's just very therapeutic. It's very simple, not complicated."
Simple, not complicated, is very much what Helen, who now lives in Dublin, aims for these days. And no wonder. This time last year she went for a mammogram. "I discovered a lump in my right breast. I was convinced it was just a lumpy breast." However, her partner (now husband), architect Rory Murphy, 'was convinced it was something sinister'. "So I thought, I'll go and get checked and it will all be grand. Two years ago, I had a lump looked at, in St Vincent's, and I had a mammogram and an ultrasound, and I was told there was nothing wrong with me. So this time, I went for the mammogram, and nothing came up. But because there was a palpable lump, I had to go into BreastCheck, where they did another mammogram, and still nothing came up. Then I had the ultrasound, and an MRI, and I was told I had a sizeable tumour at the top of my breast."
She pauses to say: "Some cancers will manifest as breast tissue - they'll camouflage themselves. Which means it is so important to check your breasts and not just rely on mammograms." Like any screening programme, as we now know, Helen says, "the mammogram is not foolproof - you have to be super-vigilant".
That was late January, and the news just kept getting worse. "I was trying to get used to the idea that I had cancer in one breast, and within half an hour I was told that I had it in both breasts and would need a double mastectomy. To get that information at that speed, it was like bullets," she says. "It was like being shot. I went into shock and started to shake. I couldn't cope, it was all coming at me too quickly. I had no time to catch up."
More bad news followed. "It was in the lymph nodes too. January and February were just horrendous, to the point that when I got the results of my CT scan, in March, I went from being absolutely devastated that I had cancer to celebrating wildly with Rory that I didn't have it in my bones."
A date for surgery was set, and "in the middle of it all," Helen says with a laugh, "my fabulous Rory decided to distract me, which was brilliant. He proposed on Sandymount beach in February, and we got married three weeks later, to the day." They had been together five years at that stage, in a relationship that Helen describes as "a very rare thing. I don't want to sound smug, or twee, but I'm very lucky. He is the kindest man I've ever met. Talk about testing your vows," she continues. "He was incredible throughout. He didn't miss one appointment, he was at every chemo session. He never let me down, not for a second. Meanwhile, he was also working, running the house, doing groceries. It was a very tough year for him, on loads of levels, and he came out of it as a knight in shining armour."
Of the wedding, she says: "It was brilliant. At this stage of our lives - I'm 53 now - it was okay to speed through it all. We made four phone calls. We got City Hall, and they said I could have my dogs give me away. Rory's two daughters were my flower girls, his son was his best man. It was very intimate and very small, only 30 people; our best and dearest friends. It was very simple, very lovely, the most beautiful, special, easy day."
And it was, she says "a lovely distraction. Never had vows been thought about more deeply. I knew I had surgery coming, I had this crazy notion that I'd die. I made a will. Cancer does make you go there," she says. "You can't not think about death."
Helen and Rory married on March 20, and surgery took place on the 28th. "My honeymoon was in Vincent's," she says, with half a laugh.
The hardest thing, at that stage, "was getting my head around the fact that both my breasts were going. Everyone is different, but for me, they were very much a part of my sexuality, of who I am, of how I presented myself to the world. They were this fundamental expression of my femininity."
Anyone looking at Helen's designs will know that she is a deeply romantic, feminine person; "Absolutely," she agrees, "and surgery like that, your whole identity suffers. I was in love, I was just married. Suddenly I'm looking at this huge change, physically."
However, once she came to terms with the necessity, Helen found her own, very unique, way through. "Once I got my head around it, I began to look at it as constructing a dress," she says. "Reconstructing my body - how are we going to do this? How are we going to stitch my skin together so it doesn't scar…? My surgeon and I ended up having these really interesting conversations; I looked at her drawings and made suggestions about how it could be done. I had to objectify it - it was the only way I could deal with what was happening."
And? "I have to hand it to my surgeon," Helen laughs, "she could come and work in my atelier! The scars have nearly disappeared."
Surgery was six hours - "I woke up absolutely delighted to be alive," she says "and knowing I didn't have cancer; it was gone. That euphoria, coupled with a lot of morphine, carried me through the pain afterwards, and through the six-week gap before I started chemo."
Chemo, for Helen, turned out to be "horrific. It just really got me. I found it really, really tough." First, she was given an injection of Neulasta, a drug given to stimulate the white blood cell count and boost the immune system. "I became so sick that I ended up back in hospital. I had bone pain like I have never imagined in my life. I ended up on a drip, with morphine. I had a massive allergic reaction, so that was the end of that. Which meant my immune system was hugely compromised for the remainder of the treatments."
Helen's response was to take charge. "I kept myself at home, away from people. You have to mind yourself, and be incredibly focused. It was like a job! I had to think about food, my diet. It was hugely important for me to maintain a very positive, healthy approach. That was my way of fighting it. Of not letting it swallow me completely, because when chemo takes over, it's daunting and exhausting, but the minute I felt a little bit better, it was up, out, walking, juicing, and I kept myself well and I didn't get any infections."
She also took the help that was on offer. "I got really good advice from one of the psychologists in ARC (Cancer Support Centre). I just wish I had gone earlier. She said, 'with chemo, what you have to do is recognise it as a different person. It's not you, it's the chemo coming at you. You have to separate yourself from it.' And that was hugely beneficial. I was finding myself being very swamped by it and very dragged down by it, and she gave me this very simple tool. The very dark thoughts that you get, the very low feeling that you get - it's not you. It's the toxic chemicals in your body. Once I knew how to manage that, it completely changed my outlook."
Rory, too, took the excellent help on offer. "He was told: 'Live in the now but be mindful of over-planning, over-thinking and overlooking what is right there in front of you'. He said that made an enormous difference."
Helen was, she says, so happy to get through the chemo that "the radiation was a doddle in comparison - 25 days in Vincents" - and, once that finished, on November 27, she and Rory headed to Paris for a long over-due honeymoon.
And now? "It's an incredible feeling of gratitude, to be well. When I think back to last year, what I remember is this overwhelming feeling of the power of human kindness. The people who came from everywhere, wanting to help. I got presents through the post from people I don't even know. My friends and family were amazing. A man I had met once, said 'you're not going to be able to walk the dogs, I'll do it'. It restores your faith in humanity."
A year ago, Helen says, she could not have imagined or believed how well she would feel again. "Look at me, I'm grand," she laughs. "I'm not bald any more, my hair is coming back, and that's a huge thing to be grateful for. I'm finally beginning to get my eyebrows back, my eyelashes are still a bit dodgy but… everything comes back. You do get through it. My God, breast cancer is a difficult thing, but you do, and if somebody is reading this article and facing it - I want to say, it is manageable. Do everything you can to support yourself. Listen to people who have been through it - for me it was my sister, who had cancer five years ago, and Domini Kemp (who writes about healthy food). Don't look at Google; you get way too much information and most is not relevant. Pay attention to what your consultant is saying to you."
Would she say cancer has changed her? "Yes. I definitely have changed my outlook in terms of the time I spend with people and looking out for people. I suppose my empathy levels have shot up because of what happened to me, and that's a good thing. I know just to appreciate a sunny day - we can be way too busy and bogged down; just go for a walk on the beach, breathe the air, take the time to talk - physical conversations."
Through her illness, Helen kept her studio open. "I had to keep it running," she says, "because I had clients coming in, they were amazingly loyal. I wasn't firing on all cylinders, but I was able to hang on and now we're back, we're working on a new collection, we're in there every day, and it's a joyous place to be."
In March, Helen will open the ARC Fashion Show. "It's the only show of its kind in Ireland," she says, "a celebration of Irish fashion, with a breadth of talent in one room, from established to emerging designers, which you don't get anywhere else in the country. It's a lovely thing to focus on." There is also a sculpture show in China to look forward to, an installation fusion of fashion and sculpture, and "my clients coming back in their droves, which is amazing".
Does she find herself worrying about the future? "Maybe I'm naive," she says, "but I haven't even given it a second thought. Maybe, when I'm 90, I'll get cancer again, but not in the meantime. It's not coming back. I've no intention of allowing it in. It's just not going to happen. A lot of people said to me 'after all the treatment, is finished, you'll hit a wall'. Well, it hasn't hit yet. I just want to be well. I'm not going to stress, I'm not going to worry. I'm going to get on with living my life, enjoying my lovely house, enjoying my dogs and my gorgeous husband."
The thing is, that cancer is far from the only trauma, or even the worst, that Helen has overcome. "I've had more challenges, maybe than most," she says. "And I dealt with them, processed them, some more slowly than others. I'm probably lucky because, I think the most traumatic thing that happened to me in my life, the one that took the longest to get over, gave me an awful lot of tools for how to cope with very difficult things." She means the death of her newborn son, Ethan, in 2003. "I have been divorced since, I've had cancer since and I knew how to cope. I think, fundamentally, my core is very strong. I have a steely resolve inside me, and that happened as a result of a trauma in my life - the death of my son. I honour him in everything I do. It's 16 years now, a long time ago. But it doesn't go away. You just learn to accept it. I am lucky that I have accepted it."
Lucky is a word that crops up again and again with Helen, one she uses about herself and her life with a very endearing spontaneity. "I'm lucky that I have had a second chance. That I have an amazing marriage, a wonderful creative life, my dogs. Okay, I didn't get lucky in the lottery of life with children, but I'm lucky in so many other ways. I have amazing nephews and nieces, I have five stepchildren. My two English boys, and Rory's two girls and his son. They are absolutely part of my life, all of them. I'm lucky that I have that."
The bottom line, as she points out. "You have to look at what you do have. No one gets everything. What do you do when somebody offers you poison? You don't accept it. It's the same with toxic thoughts or depressing thoughts. Of course they come into everybody's life - but I tend not to hang on to things, I let go of the bad things, because it's not good for my soul. I do not want anyone to feel sorry for me," she says. "There's nothing to feel sorry about. I am not to be pitied. If I hadn't been through the hard things, all the other good things wouldn't have happened."
The ARC Fashion Show takes place at the RDS in Dublin on March 28. All funds raised go to ARC Cancer Support Centres. Tickets cost €55; for further info visit www.arccancersupport.ie or contact Jessica@arccancersupport.ie