'My friend Emma Hannigan showed us all how to die, with dignity, courage and wit' – Cathy Kelly pays tribute to a 'warrior queen'

By | March 11, 2019
Close: Authors Emma Hannigan and Cathy Kelly at Cathy's wedding in 2010. Photo: Garry O'Neill
Close: Authors Emma Hannigan and Cathy Kelly at Cathy’s wedding in 2010. Photo: Garry O’Neill
Friends Cathy and Emma supporting the Europa Donna Breast Cancer leaflet launch in 2009
The Gift of Friends, by Emma Hannigan, published by Hachette Ireland in February 2019

When I first read The Gift of Friends, I wanted to pick up the phone and ring Emma Hannigan, the way I once did every day. It breaks my heart that I can’t.

Because Emma died a year ago at the age of 45, after suffering from cancer for 11 years – a warrior queen who wanted to live for her beloved children, husband and family.

As one of her closest friends for all of the years she battled cancer, I hear Emma’s lovely voice in The Gift of Friends, a story that celebrates friendship and love, and sparkles with joy. And in case you think this book contains sadness, the answer is no.

Emma’s 13th novel is full of the sheer vitality, fun and wisdom that she possessed in abundance. As she wrote in that last, poignant book dedication: “This book is for my family. They are the ones I spend most of my time with and they’re the ones I’ll miss every minute of every day. For Cian, Sacha, Kim, Mum, Dad, Timmy, Hilary, Robyn and Steffy, with all my love.”

Friends Cathy and Emma supporting the Europa Donna Breast Cancer leaflet launch in 2009
Friends Cathy and Emma supporting the Europa Donna Breast Cancer leaflet launch in 2009

In hospital, as she knew she was dying, my incredible friend set herself another target: to raise as much money as she possibly could for research for Breast Cancer Ireland (BCI). Research had kept her alive for years – she understood that the way to stop other families going through what she and hers had gone through was via the important work done by BCI. In just two weeks, she raised €135,000 for BCI, the charity for which she’d been a proud ambassador. From her hospital bed. Dying.

Being with her beloved family but still, in pain and dying. And raising money. That’s the incredible woman I’m celebrating today.

When I first met Emma, some 13 years ago, I realised that she might have looked like a pixie blonde who surely must have been a ballet dancer on the outside, but on the inside, she was wise, fiercely intelligent and had the spirit of a warrior queen.

At that time, she’d already been diagnosed as a carrier of the genetic BRCA1 gene, which gave her an 85pc chance of having breast cancer and a 50pc chance of having ovarian cancer. When I met her, she was getting ready for surgery to remove both breasts and both ovaries.

With her children aged five and six, Emma was determined to do everything to live for them. She’d already had to fight a battle to have the surgery, at the time being the youngest person in Ireland to have it and she really did say: “They can carve them out with a spoon.”

How many of us would be that brave?

An avid reader, she decided she’d fulfil a dream of writing a novel while going through a year of painful surgery. I was in awe. A lot of people want to write. Most don’t. But then most aren’t Emma Hannigan. If life was giving her lemons, she was going to make lemonade. Hell, she’d set up a shop selling lemonade.

After her mastectomy, we went shopping so she could buy a post mastectomy bra. In the changing room – of course, we went in together because we were women and bras are a big decision – she stripped and showed me her scars. I stripped and showed her my drooping breasts. We laughed and discussed all the things she could now wear bra-less. The sales ladies must have wondered what we were doing in there.

And that was part of the strength and courage of Emma Hannigan. Choosing bras was not going to be sad, not a moment to look upon what she’d lost. It was part of life. She would deal with it because she had to be there for her precious family.

When she sent me the start of her first novel, she was anxious. She needn’t have been. “Keep writing!!!” I shrieked. “It’s brilliant.”

If this all sounds like people without a care in the world, dancing like Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music across the hills, then let me disabuse you of that notion.BRCA1 is a cruel genetic trick. Its heritage lies to a large extent in people with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, which Emma had and was proud of. She knew the risks were still there after the initial surgery and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that first time, she tackled it head on, the way she’d done when diagnosed with the original genetic timebomb.

She had so much to live for – her beautiful children, her husband, Cian, her adored parents, Philip and Denise, her brother Timmy, her cousins Steffy and Robyn, all of her beloved family. The warrior queen rose up again.

I honestly don’t know how she did it all. In the midst of numerous cancer treatments, of pain, of illness caused by a non-existent immune system, of radiation burns, she was a simply extraordinary mother. Her kitchen was the place where children covered in flour made cookies because, well, the place could be cleaned. But the experience of it all: children loved that, she said.

Despite endless chemotherapy, she’d be up and driving them to school, making dinner, having their school friends over to the house because Emma was the mum everyone wished they had: irreverent, kind, funny and the best cook around. Four teenagers staying over? No problem. The cat or dog needing to go to the vet? No problem. A 2,000 word count to be achieved in her office that day: no problem. Despite the horrendous years of treatment, Emma kept living with enthusiasm and love in a way that still fills me with awe.

Those strengths allowed her to talk to people diagnosed with cancer in a way only she could. “Don’t go out and dig a hole in the back garden,” she said. Her memoir, All To Live For: Fighting Cancer, Finding Hope is full of such hard-won and powerful advice.

Over the 11-year period where Emma’s cancer came back again and again, she used her powers for good. She was honoured to be asked to be a Breast Cancer Ireland Ambassador and she threw herself into the work. It was not enough that she stayed alive – she wanted to make sure that other women did too.

She answered frantic emails from just-diagnosed people, told them it was possible to get through this. She talked numerous cancer sufferers down from the metaphorical ledge, encouraged others into having chemotherapy when they thought running away from science would help. She gave hugely-attended talks about cancer and was asked each year to lecture Royal College of Surgeons’ medical students.

She wrote a monthly blog where she talked about everything from what skin cream helped her fragile chemo skin to how being able to take half a dose of a tablet chemo regime was progress. Read her words. I do not have good enough ones to describe her courage in these online missives. Her open approach to her cancer won her a massive family of online readers who read her incredibly moving and often wildly funny monthly blogs and felt that if she could do it, they could too.

In the weeks before her diagnosis became officially terminal, Emma finished her 13th novel, The Gift of Friends. As her friend Patricia Scanlan says: “Brimming with warmth, love and friendship – Emma is on every page of this absorbing, heartfelt read.” Another friend, writer Sinéad Moriarty echoes this: “I read it in one sitting.”

With Emma’s spectacular gift for humour and seeing people for what’s on the inside and not the outside, this novel is about four women who all live in one leafy suburb but have very different lives.

Last week marked her first anniversary, on March 3, and on the publication of The Gift of Friends, Breast Cancer Ireland and the Hannigan family are launching a new drive to continue Emma’s legacy of raising funds to support research efforts. Her father, Philip Hannigan, says: “Emma was very clear that every effort should be made to support ongoing research into breast cancer so that no other family would have to suffer a loss like this.”

CEO of Breast Cancer Ireland, Aisling Hurley adds: “Our memories of Emma are so vivid. Her energy and commitment to research spurs us on every day and we pledge to honour Emma’s legacy, as we continue to raise significant funds to speed up our research discovery times and ultimately affect better treatment outcomes for patients, thereby changing the landscape of this disease into the future.” After her death, BCI named a new fellowship in Emma’s honour, the Emma Hannigan Research Fellowship, and Dr Damir Vareslija was awarded the first fellowship. BCI’s and Emma’s incredible work will continue.

A year after her untimely death, I keep thinking that we’re inundated every day with messages on how to live. But how to die…? Not so much.

There are no lessons, not so many discussions in life, on how to die. But brave Emma, lover of pink sparkly things and with a mordant wit, showed us all how to die – with dignity, courage and a spirit that was undimmed by years of fighting cancer.

As this powerful, brilliantly clever and incredibly kind blonde woman lay in her hospital room, knowing absolutely that she would be gone from this planet in a matter of weeks, she wrote: “When it all comes down to the wire, all that matters is love.”

Like Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture or Dr Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, both stories of incredible men who spoke and wrote with grace and courage when they knew they were dying, Emma’s courageous words speak to us all. “Instead, gravitate towards the light and laughter. Like a moth to a flame, remembering not to get your pretty wings burned. You’ll like it better there, I promise.”

None of us who loved her or were touched by her shall ever let her flame burn out.

Breast Cancer Ireland raises significant funding for research into breast cancer as well as promoting education and awareness on the importance of breast health amongst women of all ages. To make a €4 donation text CURE to 50300 or visit breastcancerireland.com.

‘The Gift of Friends’ by Emma Hannigan, published by Hachette Ireland, is out now priced £13.99.

Irish Independent

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