Emma Hannigan: ‘I hate cancer but my sickness led me to a new career’
Juggling 10 cancer diagnoses, writing a dozen books and raising a family
Emma Hannigan: I hate cancer. I wish it would leave me alone. But I still choose to look at my life in a positive way. My sickness led me to a new career
Having cancer once is tough but dealing with 10 separate diagnoses is verging on a joke. I’d forgive you for chortling at the very thought. It’s kind of unbelievable and yet, sadly it’s my reality.
I was always a positive kind of person. A sunny side up girl who tries to see the good parts that life has to offer.
I vowed many moons ago that cancer wasn’t going to change me. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it beat me down or make me bitter.
At first I wasn’t all that sure of how I’d manage to keep that promise. After all cancer treatments and the subsequent times in hospital aren’t much fun.
As I was forced into a hospital bed one of the things I suddenly had an abundance of, was time. Instead of rushing from Billy to Jack juggling a job with motherhood and being a wife while simultaneously running a house, I was a patient – with very little patience I hasten to add.
I often had no white blood cells, a common side-effect of chemotherapy, and in turn I would contract infections so I had to stay in hospital in isolation.
I watched as much television as I could stomach. I read all the magazines until I couldn’t bear to read about another celebrity or what he or she was wearing.
I felt as if my brain might explode. I was being bombarded with information but none of it remotely reflected my feelings. I was in a place that was difficult to describe. So in order to stop myself going insane I opened my laptop and began to write.
At first it was page after page describing what had happened to me from being diagnosed as being a carrier of the BrCa 1 gene through my double mastectomy and oopherectomy surgeries right up to my first cancer diagnosis.
I wasn’t writing it for anyone to read, but all the same I knew it was boring. For some reason that irked me.
So I went back to the drawing board and started from scratch on a new blank document. This time I wrote it as a fiction story, with made-up characters who had lives outside of the hospital stuff too.
Instead of it boring me and, if I’m honest, depressing me, I found it thrilling, exciting and hugely uplifting.
Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. I became so engrossed that I would often write for six hours or more without stopping. I’d end up with pains in my neck and my hands from lack of movement! So I’d have to shuffle around the corridors of the hospital to loosen up.
My husband and parents were the only people allowed in to visit me and instead of wanting them to stay longer, as I had before, I was willing them to leave quicker. Yes, I feel ashamed writing that down!
All I wanted was to get back to my novel. It was almost like a drug as this desire to write grasped me in its clutches. I was a writing junkie!
After I was released from hospital I utilised every spare moment when the children were in bed or early in the mornings, to write. I became good at switching off background noise in my head so while the children were watching television I could sit beside them on the sofa with my laptop balanced on my knees and write.
I could go to the oncology day unit and write.
I had no idea what I would do with the story when it was completed, I simply knew I needed to complete it. The more I wrote the calmer I became. It was like a form of self-exorcism.
As it happens Cathy Kelly is one of my best friends. She’s like my sister and we can tell one another anything without judgement. But I felt oddly embarrassed to tell Cathy I was cobbling a book together. Her writing is so beautiful and eloquent, not to mention the fact that she’s published in most corners of the globe.
Cathy asked me on a number of occasions what I was writing. I passed it off, hoping she’d forget about it. But she knows me too well and guessed I was up to something. More than that, she suspected it was something I was deeply engrossed in.
When the story was finished I emailed it to Cathy at her request. She was going away for a weekend with her husband and sons.
“If it’s awful, say nothing. We’ll pretend I didn’t give it to you and we’ll never mention it again,” I said. Cathy agreed.
In the early hours of the following morning Cathy phoned my mobile.
“Are you awake,” she asked. “I’m in the bathroom in our hotel room. I’m reading your book and I love it.”
After she managed to convince me she wasn’t just being nice and she wasn’t trying to avoid hurting my feelings she said she’d advise me on what to do next. We agreed that should be done during normal waking hours and not in a bathroom.
Cathy gave me some contact names in several publishers and I wrote a cover letter and printed off the first draft of my book (all 200,000 words of it!) and sent it off. Knowing these things take time I tried to put it to the back of my mind.
Within two weeks I had two separate offers.
A whirlwind doesn’t begin to describe events after that. I was put in touch with an editor and in 2009 my first novel, Designer Genes, was published.
Since then my feet haven’t touched the ground. I have written 11 novels and one non-fiction book.
I hate cancer. I wish it would leave me alone. But I still choose to look at my life in a positive way. My sickness led me to a new career.
Emma Hannigan’s novel The Wedding Promise, published by Hachette Books Ireland, is out on February 2nd