Anne Gildea: ‘The first draft was insane. It was so angry’
The autobiography of the comedian Anne Gildea is both a visceral account of breast cancer and a glimpse into a hard childhood
Anne Gildea: “I’ll send my mum a copy.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
When you meet someone who has just published a book you usually congratulate them. It’s an achievement to write any book. But today, with the comedian and writer Anne Gildea, that would sound wrong. Her book is called I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse? A Journey Through Black Dog Days, the Big C and Laughter. It wouldn’t exist without a horrible, life-changing experience, so congratulations seem inappropriate.
In July 2011 Gildea was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She was treated, then had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. She has since received “the best possible prognosis I could have got”, she says, smiling with relief.
Gildea was also filmed for Breast Cancer: No Laughing Matter, last year’s RTÉ programme following her through treatment. The documentarymakers contacted her at about the same time that Hachette Ireland, the publisher, asked her to write a memoir based around her illness.
“I wrote the book because I was asked,” Gildea says, adding that she’s not arrogant enough to have written it as a guide for someone going through cancer, but “I know that when I was going through breast cancer I would have loved to have read something like this, to know that this is what it feels like, this is what it smells like, this is what the nausea feels like, this is the emotional and physical reality of having a mastectomy. What interested me was the texture of the experience.”
Twice she almost gave up writing the book, which she started after finishing radiotherapy. The publisher had wanted it in five months, but it took her 14.
“I had to totally re-engage with the process, and it was so hard,” she says. “It was very painful to go back to what I was feeling then. It’s not healthy. It was very hard to write the book, but overall it was therapeutic.”
What kept her going through treatment was keeping life as normal as possible. She worked with her fellow Nualas comedians Sue Collins and Maria Tecce for as long as she could, and she wrote a newspaper column. It’s business as usual again from September 6th, when the Nualas start an autumn tour of the country, beginning at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght.
As a performer she has used aspects of life as material in the past. With the publication of the book she has now shared her experience both in print and on broadcast media. Has sharing the experience so publicly been difficult? “I told my brother the other day I was going to have a colonoscopy, and he said, ‘When is that being broadcast?’
“Nobody close to me wanted me to do the documentary,” she says. “They felt I was vulnerable. My brother and sister are discreet people, and they thought that it was a very indiscreet project and that the most important thing going through treatment was to engage with it and not get stressed by anything else.