Una Mullally: Cancer taught me lessons that can help you cope with the pandemic

Una Mullally: “As the pandemic unfolded, there were so many echoes of my own experience with illness.” Photograph: Hazel Coonagh/GCN
My experience with illness has helped me deal with life during a global pandemic in ways I could never have predicted

This article is part of a series focusing on hope, courage and resilience in the time of Covid-19


On Friday, March 13th, I was sitting in a hotel room in Lahinch, Co Clare. The television production my girlfriend, Sarah, was working on was about to be shut down, and we were digesting the almost time-stopping speech Leo Varadkar had delivered in Washington DC.

This particular date is always a weird one for me. On Friday, March 13th 2015, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a disease that upended my world, changed my life, and sent me on an emotional and spiritual trajectory that still feels confusing and disorientating.

In the hours after my diagnosis, I began writing a diary for the first time in years. The initial lines that came to me were the opening ones of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

And so there we were five years later, engulfed in an existential crisis described to me over the previous weeks by my brother who lives in Hong Kong and by Sarah’s sister who lives in northern Italy. We were in that strange time warp the pandemic created, where people in other places were experiencing our future. 

All of the things you anticipated do actually happen – the disbelief, the crying, the fear, the anguish – but so do loads of things you don’t anticipate, mainly that life goes on

Over the past few years, Sarah, a screenwriter, has been teaching me how to write film scripts. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote in The White Album. What’s fascinating to me is the engineering that occurs in screenwriting. It’s physics. There are rules. No matter how experimental you get, things have to flow in a particular way to land.

In a monster film – a creature feature – for example, the monster is not revealed all at once. A serene scene is set but we get the feeling that something is wrong, we glimpse the monster and a lone character obsesses over its existence, many don’t believe such a horror could possibly take hold but it attacks, then we fight back and destroy it.

Of course, there’s always a wry understanding that a sequel is en route; the egg hatching, the twitching leg, the circuit board fizzing to life. Sometimes the monster is a kind of punishment for humans tinkering with nature, often it’s something so bizarre that it upends our concept of reality. New rules are created – don’t feed them after midnight, don’t breed raptors, don’t go into the basement – as the old rules of reality are tossed out. You now live in the monster’s world, and your rules do not apply.

When something terrible happens to you, what can be remarkable is how your emotional engagement feels outside the process. All of the things you anticipated do actually happen – the disbelief, the crying, the fear, the anguish – but so do loads of things you don’t anticipate, mainly that life goes on even when you’re under threat, and within that, you understand the insignificance of your life, and how part of its process is to end.

At the outset of the pandemic, I realised that through facing stage three cancer when I was 32 years old, I was equipped for this moment in a way I could never have predicted. We are dealing with a collective serious illness, which is easier than dealing with an individual serious illness because everyone is experiencing it.  

A complex state

Part of the reason I had gone to Lahinch with Sarah was because I was experiencing a debilitating cycle of panic attacks. I thought time alone in a hotel room while she was working would help. I went on long walks, stared at the sea, sat by the Cliffs of Moher. I felt the edge that I was so familiar with come in from the horizon.

This edge, the gravity of facing one’s mortality, was something I perched on for 2015, and with every passing follow-up scan and check-up plunged back into. The thing people don’t tell you about a serious illness, is that no matter how strong your support system is, you face it alone. 

And then, as the seriousness of the pandemic in Ireland escalated, my panic attacks disappeared. They stopped on Friday the 13th. It was as if a collective national panic had risen to reach my own, and created an equilibrium where mine dissipated. While everyone was panicking, I was calm. Really calm.

As the pandemic unfolded, there were so many echoes of my own experience with illness, it seemed almost poetic

While I carry the guilt of surviving cancer when so many don’t, the gratitude I have for the resilience and insight it gave me is immense. This is an extraordinarily complex state. How can you be grateful for something that was so horrific? Probably because if you are open to learn, there are lessons in everything, especially our darkest experiences.

As the pandemic unfolded, there were so many echoes of my own experience with illness, it seemed almost poetic. At times I was afraid to verbalise them because it felt that these rhymes were so on the nose, that no one would believe them, or would think I was retrofitting my own experience to suit a contemporary moment. I wanted to tell people I had knowledge that may help them navigate these times, but mostly I fell silent.

How to cope

Now, six months or so into this bizarre, confusing, slump of a moment, I’ve realised those lessons haven’t faded. While we may struggle to latch on to the weird dreamlike state we were in when the pandemic began – which was shock, by the way – what we’ve failed to share with each other are ways to cope. Here’s how I coped:

You will feel like your future is being taken away from you. You will resent this. Focus on what you have right now, not what you’ve lost, and not hypotheticals that have yet to come to pass.

You will want to control situations. Do it. Organise small outings, plan dinners. But at the same time, keep it loose. Like any kind of flow – creative, physical, spiritual – when you let go, it arrives.

You will sneakily feel that there is a liberation to all of this, and that feeling is almost taboo. If you’re not on the frontline, if you’re not an essential worker, you will feel a certain release. I was so burnt out before and during my cancer, especially because it coincided with the marriage equality referendum.

You’ll get through it in ways you won’t expect

I was spending all of my time campaigning and canvassing while in daily radiation and chemotherapy treatment – which was madness, but I’d do it again – and so the idea that I could hand my life over to a bunch of people to save felt like a very heightened version of handing it over to someone to solve. Finally, someone else was in charge, and I just had to lie there.

You will get lonely. You will get dark. You will try to push the worst-case scenarios out of your head. What if there is no vaccine? What if someone you love dies? What if you can’t get over this grief you’ve experienced? What if you lose your job? What if the plans and dreams you had are not possible anymore? There’s nothing you can do about any of that. Let it go. You’ll get through it in ways you won’t expect.

You will understand how gigantic smallness is, how all imaginable potential lies not in massive goals or grand plans but in the connections of people, in the safety of community, in the beauty of small gestures, in nature, art, and in people’s faces.

Our projections into the future are like headlights in the fog, there’s only so much we can see

You will be suspicious of those who want to get “back to normal”. There is no normal. We were existing within a system of late-stage capitalism that was dementing us and ruining the planet. My greatest fear is that we snap back to that. We will need enough of us focusing on resisting the bad practices that were causing a pandemic of burnout, inequality, division and ecological disaster. Get ready.

You will want to plan something to lift your spirits. Do it now, or as soon as you can. Don’t wait until next month or the month after. Right now, we can only really gauge the immediate and short-term. Our projections into the future are like headlights in the fog, there’s only so much we can see, so work with what you can.

Emotional engagement

You will feel strange echoes of childhood. You won’t quite know what it is, but it’s there. It’s in the sounds, it’s almost tangible in the air. What is it? Freedom? Safety? Regression?

I don’t know, but I think it’s something to do with paying attention. Maybe it’s because shock focuses the senses, but you are noticing things you used to notice, way before technology took over your attention, before responsibilities preoccupied you, before money stresses and the complex pressures of work occupied your mind. You appreciate the light changing and you realise that you haven’t paid attention to that in a long time.

For some people, the rigid way they think may seem like a strength, but rigidness cracks

Your social circle will become smaller. A lot of this is practical. Everyone is living in a global pandemic. People have a lot going on. But you will begin to understand who gets it – your version of “it” – and who doesn’t. You will not understand the petty concerns or seemingly irrelevant grievances of people. “We’re in a global pandemic,” you’ll think. “I have cancer!” I used to think, when I saw people going about their daily business. “How can you just be sitting around having pints when my life is over!” It will all get very Funeral Blues. 

You will become suspicious of people who aren’t imploding. The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour”. You will realise that some people find it really hard to engage emotionally with the world, pandemic included. Many don’t have the tools. For some people, the rigid way they think may seem like a strength, but rigidness cracks. The people who work through their emotions will move more freely through it all. To be malleable, to be wrong, to change your mind, to crumble, to be indecisive, to not know what to do, to wonder what the point of it all is: that’s strength.

In the aftermath of my illness, I noticed I wasn’t as bolshy. For the first time, I would get nervous before speaking at an event. But I also listened more. I opened up. I thought for a while that I was losing confidence but it turns out I was gaining vulnerability. If you’re someone who identifies as a strong person, this can be difficult. But vulnerability is what lets the world in. 

I think one thing people are really afraid of is pain. I went through a particular 48-hour period of pain so acute I was constantly passing out from the severity of it. During this time, whenever I was conscious, I repeated the same words to myself: “I am in pain, this pain is terrible, but it will pass.” We are in pain, this pain is terrible, but it will pass. If it gets worse, well that pain will be terrible too, and it will pass, because everything does, including ourselves.