A routine mammogram at 60 – and life changes overnight

A shock cancer diagnosis has taken Hilary Fannin's coolest friend through hell and back

“My friend hadn’t known she was ill. Like so many of us, she was just busy dealing with work stress, and a bit tired from running to stand still. A routine mammogram blew the whistle on all that.”

“My friend hadn’t known she was ill. Like so many of us, she was just busy dealing with work stress, and a bit tired from running to stand still. A routine mammogram blew the whistle on all that.”

 

We met on the platform of Cork’s Kent Station in 1981. She wore a beret at the obligatory jaunty angle. She had knee-length boots and lacy tights, and although she was only visiting for the weekend she was smothered by bags. Blond, with a bow-shaped mouth and blue eyes, she had the potential to be dauntingly cool.

And I was 19, and it had been a long, cold, skint winter, and I was easily daunted by yellow-haired women in their mid-20s who turned up on station platforms in fairly spectacular hosiery. 

She walked towards us, my brother and I, cajoling the rioting bags. She would have been alarmingly cool if it hadn’t been for a wild, brazen warmth that radiated from her. This has been, for all the years I’ve known her, the hallmark of her personality. 

I remember the three of us walking down MacCurtain Street, across the bridge and into the Long Valley on Winthrop Street, where we sat around a marble table that held black pints and plates of that hostelry’s famous sandwiches, plump and white as pillows. I was working in a job I hated at the time, hitch-hiking out along the Glanmire Road every morning for an 8am date with a sluice room. 

The 1980s were tough on Cork, dole queues snaking down the quays. Everyone I knew was leaving for London or New York. Despite that, and although we’d only just met, I remember confiding my ambitions to her, slapping raw hope on to our shared table. I remember her telling me that nothing was impossible, that the journey had only begun. 

We’ve remained friends for more than 30 years. Our lives run on different tracks, months and months can go by when we don’t see each other, but when we do alight on the same platform, it’s as if the absence never happened.

Early diagnosis

I was in a supermarket carpark last spring, not long after my friend’s 60th birthday party, unloading bags into the boot, when I got her message: cancer, early diagnosis, surgery first, treatment options later. I sat into the car, reread the message. 

“I’ll be fine,” she had written. “I’ll be absolutely fine.”

The other day I mounted the steps of the seafront hotel where she and I had arranged to meet, the first time I’d seen her since her treatment concluded. Ushered through the doors by a gum-bite wind that would, when it found its teeth, begin chucking the sea against the harbour wall, I walked into the foyer, where a group of overexcited adults in tatty fancy dress were running around in delighted circles. 

I briefly converged with a woman wearing a bellydancing costume over her jumper, and another I assumed to have been Puss-in-Boots, given the acrylic tail pinned to her not insubstantial bottom. 

“We can hide out here!” they called to some bloke in a djellaba with a tea towel on his head. All three galloped off towards a stormy pergola.

My friend was waiting inside, where more graduates of the dressy-up box were jumping in and out of the lift. “Corporate team-building,” she sighed by way of explanation. 

We found somewhere quiet to sit and drink tea. Outside, the milky ocean rattled and churned.

She hadn’t known she was ill. Like so many of us, she was just busy dealing with work stress, and a bit tired from running to stand still. A routine mammogram blew the whistle on all that.

“Life changes overnight,” she told me. 

Unflinching love

She has been through surgery and radiotherapy and chemotherapy and other drugs to target the specifics of her disease, and there have been days, she told me, that she couldn’t lift her head from the pillow. But there have been other days, too, when the practical, unflinching love and support of her friends have lifted her way beyond exhaustion and fear.

It’s difficult to express this without sounding trite, but she is on the cusp now of a new life. And yes, she still has to make a living, and no, life’s problems don’t blow away like a house of straw. But listening to her talk about how her illness had not just demanded a re-evaluation of her life, but also offered clarity and simplicity, was liberating. 

There is a phrase that she has carried away from her treatment, a phrase said to her over and over by surgeons and porters and nurses, a phrase finally truly heard.

“Mind yourself,” they gently insisted. “Mind yourself.”

I offer her words to you, as she offered them to me. Mind yourself.

I’m trying hard to listen.

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