Published On: Sun, Aug 6th, 2017

I’ve taken on cancer ten times in ten years so I can be here for my children


I knew instantly what I was feeling when I found the cluster of little lumps, like small rubber peas, in my neck in October 2015. I’d been here before.

As I ran my fingers across them I knew without any hesitation that my was back – for the tenth time in a decade.

I’m not the only person to have found something worrying – too many people have either been in this exact situation or someone they love has – I just never imagined I would battle cancer so many times I would hit double figures.

Emma HanniganEMMA HANNIGAN

Emma Hannigan has taken on cancer ten times in ten years

In 2005 I discovered that I carry the BRCA1 gene. This meant I had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.


I’m glad it’s me and not my children, my husband or parents


Not great odds, so I pushed for surgery.

My son was five and daughter was four and all I wanted was to be there for them. They were, and still are, my main reason for fighting.

A double mastectomy with reconstruction and both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed would reduce my risk of cancer to five per cent.

SurgeryGETTY STOCK IMAGE

Emma had a double mastectomy with reconstruction and both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed

I thought that would solve the problem. But life has a habit of throwing us curve balls. Fewer than six months after the operation I started to feel unwell. I had a strange rash, my joints ached and I put on weight.

We discovered that in spite of my best efforts, undetected cancerous cells from my breast tissue had spread to my neck, shoulder and armpit.

I was only 34.

I remember being surprised at how calm I felt. The doctors told me they could treat me successfully and that my prognosis was very positive.

It was early stages and they were happy that chemotherapy and surgery to remove lymph nodes would do the trick. So I went through chemo, just like thousands of other women.

I came out the other side, was given the all clear and honestly thought I’d done my duty where cancer was concerned. Little did I know my journey was only beginning.

Less than a year later the Big C returned. I was flummoxed. Never in a million years had I imagined it would come back.

You have no choice but to simply get on with it though, so I endured yet more chemotherapy.

Emma Hannigan EMMA HANNIGAN

To date Emma Hannigan has had 12 bestsellers in Ireland

Naively I then assumed I had paid my dues, but cancer has no social conscience. It doesn’t care who it hits nor how many times. So as the years rolled by so too did my diagnoses as I clocked up a third, then fourth all the way to my tenth round. I wouldn’t blame people for assuming that my life was nothing but hell during those times.

It would be reasonable of you to imagine that I might have turned into a seething ball of anger. That perhaps I might have wanted to yell ‘Why me?’ at the sky. But I have never felt that way.

Hand on heart, I’ve always kept one notion to the front of my mind: I’m glad it’s me and not one of my children or my husband or parents. I would prefer to take the baton and run with it.

I had made a conscious decision when I first heard about the gene that I would not allow this hideous disease to define me. That mine would not be a story of misery.

Despite being diagnosed 10 times in as many years I still believe mine is a tale of hope and positivity. I hold tight to the knowledge that I am one of the lucky ones.

I’ve spent a lot of time in hospital over the past decade and knew I needed to find a way of passing the time, so I began to write.

To date I’ve had 12 bestsellers in Ireland and my career is going from strength to strength.

Writing was the thing that kept me going.

I put a lot of time into character development, it was like escapism in a way. I believe there is always light in the darkness, sometimes we just need to look for it.

My disease has always emerged in my lymph nodes and it’s always just below the surface of my skin. I have found my own cancer every time. In a way it’s good because my medical team can take immediate action, we know what we’re dealing with and there’s no delay.

But the down side is that I can see and feel the cancer spreading in my body. Needless to say, with each diagnosis comes a fresh wave of fear.

Especially as I know that a treatment can only be used once on each person. The cancer becomes accustomed to a drug so every time my oncologist has had to come up with something new.

Until diagnosis number 10 my cancers melted away with chemotherapy or radiotherapy. So while I was having to endure the side effects of harsh treatments at least I knew they were working.

This time was different.

The cancer began resisting. I was put on a trial drug, a new way of treating cancer, called “parp inhibitors”. These oral tablets promised to be less invasive than chemotherapy.

They also worked on the notion of getting the immune system to fix the cancer rather than obliterating it. This would save the good cells while killing the bad ones.

LaptopGETTY STOCK IMAGE

‘I put a lot of time into character development, it was like escapism in a way.’ says Emma

It sounded like the answer to all my problems. With my hopes pinned on this, I was certain I would be cancer free within months and I could get back to living my life and writing my books. I was devastated when I realised my body was totally rejecting the drug.

I was violently ill throughout the course and, worst of all, after two months it became apparent from scans that the cancer wasn’t going away.

Immediately, I was moved to an intravenous chemotherapy drug that, thankfully, had an instant effect. Mercifully the tumours started shrinking and I was headed in the right direction. The only down side was that I noticed my hearing becoming muffled, as if I were under water.

By the time I’d endured a massive eight rounds all the tumours were gone bar one small blighter in my neck. This was a good result though.

There was no further spread and once the tiny remaining one was monitored, I could carry on.

My hearing hasn’t returned so I now wear hearing aids in both ears but I feel it’s a small price to pay. I WISH I could tell you that I was able to forget about that little node and that I am cancer free everywhere else.

But as I said before, cancer has no social conscience so more nodes have come to join that little one.

Emma’s memoir, All To Live For Emma’s memoir, All To Live For [EMMA HANNIGAN]

The largest manifested at the front of my throat with 15 smaller ones down either side of my neck and into my shoulder. For the first time, I have experienced nerve pain. The tumours were pinching nerves so now I’m facing pain management to boot.

I have this week finished a course of radiotherapy on a fabulous new IMRT (intensity modulated radiotherapy) machine which works along with a constant drip of chemotherapy that I carry with me at all times.

The great news is that it’s working.

The cancer is finally melting away. It’s being kicked into touch. I feel as if I’m on top of it once more and that I can win this round too. It’s been rough this time. It’s been scary as hell and painful beyond belief but I am crawling out of the ashes and I have full faith and hope that I will recover once more.

After all, I have so many more books to write. I’m not anywhere near ready to throw in the towel yet. If you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer or you know someone who has, please take hope from my story.

Emma’s memoir, All To Live For (Headline, £14.99), is out Thursday. Her latest novel is The Wedding Promise (Headline, £7.99). 


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