In a candid interview I chat with author and self-proclaimed “cancer vixen” Emma Hannigan about battling the disease an extraordinary nine times
There definitely seems to be something in the water of seaside town Bray. With comedian Dara O’ Briain, presenter Laura Whitmore, and Olympic Gold medallist Katie Taylor all hailing from the satellite town, it certainly has star quality credentials. Author Emma Hannigan can surely be added to this list of well-known Bray off-spring. Having purchased her first books and met her husband there, Emma is now rearing her own children in the Wicklow town. Heart-warming and truly inspiring, an endless flow of endearing dialogue flows from the author’s mouth.
“I lived in Bray and that’s where the first Dubray Bookshop originated. It was called the Bray Bookshop. It was an amazing bookshop and my mum was a Montessori teacher. Both myself and my older brother were able to write at the age of three. We got a book every week. My Mum instilled it in me, you blame your mum for everything I suppose”, laughs the author
In 2005, Emma’s seemingly picture perfect lifestyle was rocked with the news that she possessed a rare gene, BrCa1, which made her 85% more likely of developing breast cancer and had a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer. Instead of viewing this information as a negative, reflecting ten years on, Emma knows that had she not known about this gene she probably wouldn’t be alive today. “I feel that knowledge is power. So I always saw it as a positive thing that I knew I had it. I know now for a fact had I not been diagnosed with that gene and if I hadn’t reacted when I had I wouldn’t be here now”
It was perhaps Emma’s steady educational background that allowed her to view this potentially fatal news in a positive light and in 2006 she took the brave step in having a double mastectomy to prevent the manifestation of cancer. However these precautionary steps didn’t prevent Emma from falling victim to breast cancer in 2007 and a whopping eight times thereafter. Still in her early thirties at this time, I ask Emma did she ever say “Why me?”
“No I’ve never said that. It was one in 3, it’s now one in 2 people who will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. You know it’s not that unusual, it is unusual to have cancer 9 times, I’ll give you that” As in every aspect of her life Emma viewed the situation as a positive and was practical in her approach to tackling the disease.
“My prognosis was always positive, the doctors were always very clear about that. I’ve been very fortunate in that every radiation and chemo session that I’ve had has worked and eradicated the cancer that was there at the time. I’ve had recurrences and that is due to the gene, but I know that I’m very lucky that the new treatments are working on me”
Although she is not a “guinea pig” for new drugs, Emma is aware of how important these new clinical practices are in building cancer research and removing the deadly stigma that is attached to the disease. “I suppose I’m at the forefront of this new age of cancer in that it can be a chronic illness rather than a disease that will kill you and I’m very much the proof of that. I was born at the right time I think”
Emma owes her survival to modern medicine and doctors “I don’t have special powers; there isn’t a reason why I survived. It’s not that I’m better at it than somebody else, it’s that the treatments are getting better all the time”
It was this time spent in hospital undergoing gruelling chemotherapy and radiation sessions that Emma turned to writing as a form of solace. With best friend, author Cathy Kelly guiding her towards the names of various publishers, Emma received two book deals within ten days, avoiding the usual strenuous process that many authors face when trying to grab their first book deal .
“I didn’t quite understand how difficult it is to get published. My heart goes out to those struggling with it and I’m sure they want to batter me right now. I don’t know, I’m not a religious person but I do believe that things happen for a reason and I do believe that people watch over us. Somebody good up there is minding me”
In 2011 Emma wrote Talk to the Headscarf, a memoir documenting her own battle with cancer. Written in her signature heart-felt and humorous style, Emma admits that it was a cathartic, yet surreal experience.
“I found it really odd to write. I’d written two fiction books at this stage and then to have to write something that was fact rather than fiction, it’s very hard not to let your mind wander and think it would be great if she went off to Paris in the next chapter” says the author heartedly.
“There was definitely a sense of when I was writing parts of it and thinking ‘Jesus imagine if that happened to you!’ and it had happened to me. Bloody hell, if somebody told me all of these things were going to happen, I’d have never believed them. And you do forget. So I suppose it was a way of getting it all out. I don’t really look back as a person, I always look forward. It’s really weird writing something that actually happened to you. You block out a lot of things I think”
In remission, Emma is now a full-time author and as our conversation comes to a close she lets us in on some trusted advice her father gave to her which she believes should be applied to writing
“The main thing I would say is to be honest and write from who you are. A thing my dad said to me years ago which was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was if you are going to lie you have to have a brilliant memory. If you try and be Marian Keyes, you might be quite good at it for one book but if you try and continue, it’s very difficult and it’s very exhausting, so be yourself”
Emma’s latest book The Secrets We Share is available in all good book stores April 9th.