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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 24 April, 2014

Column: ‘This revelation gave me an 85 per cent chance of breast cancer’

Emma Hannigan describes the moment she found out she was genetically predisposed to developing cancer – and what happened next.

Emma Hannigan

CIAN AND I sat in the hospital corridor where I’d waited with Mum. We were there for about ten minutes. It felt like a week. The pale blue walls echoed the cold feelings that were lurching in the pit of my stomach.

As if in some subconscious reaction to the serious note of the day, I’d worn a pink glittery T-shirt, stark white jeans with crystals on the backside and bubblegum-coloured ballerina shoes. All I was missing was the Cosmopolitan cocktail and the flashing disco boppers.

‘Do you think I might have gone a bit Sex and the City with the outfit?’ I asked. ‘When have you been any different?’ Cian smiled.

‘Emma, step this way.’ Nuala appeared andgestured to us to follow her.

‘Okay?’ Cian squeezed my hand as we both took a deep breath. ‘Bring it on.’ I nodded firmly as I followed Nuala.

‘Come on in.’ Nuala smiled warmly at us both.

I introduced Cian and we exchanged pleasantries, but not for long. I couldn’t stand it any longer. ‘I apologise if I sound curt, Nuala. Please put me out of my misery. I now know I’m the most impatient person on the planet.’ I smiled to show I wasn’t angry, just anxious.

‘Emma, I’m sorry to say that you are gene-positive too.’

The geneticist was an exceptionally serene and gentle person. If she could have willed my genetic disposition to be different, she would have.
I swallowed. I closed my eyes for a second longer than necessary. This revelation meant I had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 50 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer. Unless I did something about it. I didn’t need reminding that both types of cancer had already claimed my aunt Helen and my grandmother’s sister Anneliese.

I don’t remember there being a loud noise or any audible click, but the gears changed inside my head. My brain went from live-mode to survive-mode. From that moment on, I knew I was going to do everything in my power to stay alive.

‘We emerged into the August sunshine’

In most situations life has thrown at me, I will find something to laugh about. I will pick on the most bizarre aspect and turn it into a joke. That day, I was fresh out of one-liners. Cian asked a few questions and accepted the same information pack that Mum had been given a few months previously. ‘Call me if I can be of any further assistance,’ Nuala offered.

We emerged from the hospital into the August sunshine. I handed Cian the car parking ticket and stood like I was made of plaster of Paris. He took the car key from my hand and I followed him to the car.

We hugged, then wordlessly got in and drove home.

I would love to say that we smiled at each other as poignant songs like ‘I Will Survive’ or ‘Stayin’ Alive’ just happened to burst forth from the radio. But the reality was that we were both trying to digest the facts and come to terms with what should happen next. Although many people have commented to me that they would have crumbled when told they were gene-positive, I felt an odd satisfaction. I had known I would carry the gene. I was glad that my strong hunch had been right. In a funny way, it gave me self-confidence about my own body. Not in a how-to- look-good-naked type of way, but in a more Iam in-tune-with-my-own-workings sort of way.

How did I feel, knowing I had an inbuilt predisposition to get cancer? In a word – terrified. The way I saw it, I had a choice of two roads to take.
The first involved wallowing and feeling sorry for myself. I could have gone on a personal rant about how unfair it was that our family had been cursed with this damned gene. Or I could do an ostrich and stick my head in the sand. But what was the point of that?

The second road involved embracing the positive elements of my life and going for it.

What’s positive about being diagnosed with BRCA1, I hear you cry? Plenty. I had something vital: information. I’d had a warning. Put it this way, if your entire house must go on fire, wouldn’t you be eternally grateful if you had even ten minutes’ notice, so you could run around and free all your family? Imagine if you had twenty minutes’ notice and could also rescue all your cherished photographs, plus your other most precious belongings. Imagine if you had an hour’s notice. You’d do a lot, wouldn’t you?

Well, to me, being told I was gene-positive gave me that crucial notice. It afforded me the time to take a deep breath and decide what to do, with calm clarity.

Emma Hannigan is an author living in Bray, Co Wicklow with her husband Cian and two children. She has now survived cancer eight times. This is an extract from her new book Talk To The Headscarf, which is available now published by Hachette Ireland.

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