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Emma Hannigan has battled cancer ten times in a decade
Having battled cancer an astonishing 10 times, she’s still here to tell the tale.
“Each year I get to spend with my family and friends feels like a triumph,” she says.
Emma, who lives in Bray, County Wicklow in Ireland, was no stranger to the disease growing up.
“There is a long history of cancer in my family. My grandmother died of ovarian cancer in the 1980s and four of my mum’s seven sisters got cancer too,” she says.
In 2005, a genetic testing laboratory in Dublin offered to test the women in Emma’s family to find out if they carried the BRCA1 cancer gene.
If any of them tested positive, it would mean they had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Emma received the devastating news that she carries the BRCA1 gene, along with her aunt and her mum Denise.
She was told her only options were to have a double mastectomy and her ovaries removed or have regular ultrasound scans to ensure any tumours were detected early.
Emma had a double mastectomy in 2006 and had both her ovaries removed the following July
“I took one look at my son Sacha and daughter Kim, who were five and four, and thought: ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to leave my children.’
“So I decided to have the surgery,” says Emma.
“I didn’t find it a difficult decision or feel I was being robbed of my womanhood. I just thought about the life I’d gain.”
Although her children were only small, she was determined to be honest with them.
“I remember when I was a teenager, my aunt Helen had cancer and if my cousins and I walked into the kitchen, mum and her sisters would stop talking. They felt it was better to shield us from what was happening.”
Emma recalls: “Looking back, I think it would have been better if they’d told us the truth. So that was always at the forefront of my mind when talking to Sacha and Kim. I told my children that mummy had some ‘bad beads’ and I put my hand where the cancer was likely to develop.
“I explained that the bad beads could make mummy sick so the doctor was going to take them away.”
Since there was little awareness at the time of the BRCA1 gene – which the actress Angelina Jolie also carries – the reaction from her friends and family was mixed when she told them she planned to have preventive surgery.
But her business manager husband Cian, 43, and her parents were supportive.
“Mum and I got our results within six weeks of each other, so she understood what I was going through,” says Emma.
“But some of my friends were desperately worried for me. They wanted to make sure I was making the right decision.”
And it was tough finding a surgeon who would carry out the operation.
“It took me six months to get a surgeon to do it because the concept was so new.
“I asked three doctors and they all looked at me as if I had two heads. But eventually I found someone.”
In February 2006, Emma had a double mastectomy and the following July she had both ovaries removed.
Yet when tissue was sent off for tests it was discovered that there were already pre-cancerous cells in Emma’s breast.
Although she was told that the cancer had been caught in time, in January 2007 an itchy rash spread across Emma’s chest and face.
“I went back to hospital but they told me I had an overactive imagination and I should go home and count my blessings,” says Emma.
“But I knew something was wrong so I got a second opinion from a skin expert.”
The consultant asked Emma if she had a family history of cancer, and when she said yes, he admitted her the same day. In June 2007, Emma was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and caused an autoimmune reaction.
She started chemotherapy immediately and was determined to remain positive.
“I never felt angry or asked why it was happening to me. I’ve always been a positive person and I vowed that I wouldn’t let cancer change that.
“I didn’t have control over my physical wellbeing but I did have control over how I dealt with it and how much I allowed it to impact on my life.”
Finally, after the gruelling chemotherapy treatment, Emma was told she was free of cancer. But less than a year later it returned.
“I was in the shower and I felt two lumps on my neck, like little rubber peas under the skin and I knew the cancer was back,” says Emma.
“I’d taken the first diagnosis in my stride but when it came back the second time I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, I did everything I could to not have it and now it’s back again’.”
Emma was given another round of chemotherapy and the lumps disappeared. But it wasn’t long before she found more lumps and was diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
By 2014, she had battled the disease nine times and over the years the treatments have taken their toll, with one especially gruelling course of chemo leaving her partially deaf.
“My children are now 16 and 17 and can’t remember a time when I didn’t have cancer, which makes me very sad,” says Emma.
“But the kids, along with Cian, have always been there for me. It makes me feel very lucky.”
Now Emma is battling cancer for the 10th time but is determined to overcome it.
“Without doubt the lowest point has been the past 18 months. Until then, each treatment worked like a dream but this time the cancer resisted.
“But I’ve just finished a round of radiotherapy using a new machine and it’s worked already.
“Combined with the chemotherapy, I feel as if I’m on top of the cancer again rather than the other way around.”
Emma will happily raise a toast to beating cancer ten times at her birthday celebrations this year
Battling the disease has given Emma a new outlook on life.
“It makes me appreciate every day. I don’t take life for granted and I never will,” she says.
Now, every birthday, Christmas and New Year is a cause for celebration.
“We go away for New Year’s Eve every year as a family and it’s always really emotional when the countdown to midnight comes.”
Determined to stay positive, Emma began to write when she was in hospital.
“I started logging what was happening to me and discovered that I loved writing.”
Emma has written a book to inspire other cancer victims
A friend convinced her to approach a publisher and in 2009 her first novel was published. Now she has penned 13 books including a memoir.
“When I was first diagnosed, I looked for books to read but they were all quite negative. I wanted people to see that a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence,” she says.
“I tell people that I’ve had cancer 10 times not to scare them but to remind them that I’m still here.”
To order All To Live For, by Emma Hannigan (£14.99, Headline), call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562 310 or visit expressbookshop.co.uk