Liberties star shares her breast cancer experience

Eve Sherlock

Anne Guildea, centre, poses with her fellow bandmates

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month our reporter Eve Sherlock talked to Anne Gildea of The Nuala’s fame about her experience with the  disease.

Liberties resident, Anne Gildea found stardom as one third of the comedic ‘girl band’, The Nualas, in the mid-nineties. Having enjoyed a stellar career touring the world as a comedic performer, Anne turned her hand to writing, putting pen to paper every week in her own column in the Irish Mail on Sunday since 2007. In March 2011, The Nualas reformed for what was to be their reunion tour.  In July that year, Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer.

As treatment progressed performing became harder and harder, and The Nualas stopped gigging last November when Anne had a mastectomy. Anne, however, did not stop working; she documented her experience through her column every week and made a quick decision to allow her treatment to be documented for RTE.

Anne finished her radiotherapy treatment at the beginning of March 2012, just one week after the documentary ‘Breast Cancer: No Laughing Matter’ was aired on RTE.

The 46-year-old made the hasty decision on the eve of having her head shaved to allow two filmmakers, Libby Mc Cormack and Anna Rodgers, previously unknown to her, to film her emotional and physical journey throughout her treatment.

“Everybody around me worried, but I found the filming the most amazing distraction. It was like work for me, just continuing what I’d always done and to make sure The Nualas didn’t fall off the map. There was very little information about the reality of breast cancer, so I thought it would be a great way to document it.”

Before the documentary aired, she was conscious of the fact that the footage focused very much on her own personal experience of battling cancer and that not everyone may relate to it. Although there were some negative comments from members of the Irish press and others passing judgement on her situation – “One person compared my experience to having your appendix removed”- on the whole, the documentary was received incredibly well.

“Through the documentary, I turned the cancer into something positive. Women have told me they had a positive experience through cancer and it made them reassess their lives. That’s not to sound trite, other women are devastated by it, but the emotional journey is the same for every woman. It’s a lonely process – loss of body, losing your health. I’ve had hundreds of emails and cards, that made me realise we’re all in the same boat.”

It’s clear that Anne has managed to extract the positives from her own experience and has formed a new understanding of cancer treatment. “I would hope that it took some of the interest and taboo out of it, but also to lessen the impact. It’s a big thing to lose a breast, but there are worse things in the world.”

Since then, Gildea has been going from strength to strength having spent the summer touring with The Nualas and receiving ‘positive results’ from her oncology check-ups in St. James’s private clinic every four months. She is currently being treated for Lymphedema, a result of the removal of her lymphnodes during treatment, which is causing fluid to build up in her arm.

“A lot of people in Ireland are suffering from Lymphedema and the services and support here need much improvement. Compared to other countries the support offered here is quite poor because it just isn’t getting the funding. I’m being treated every three months whereas a woman I met from Amsterdam is receiving treatment weekly. The arm becomes very swollen and sore, the pain can be chronic and quite distressing. We need better prevention for cancer patients.”

That being said, Gildea can’t speak highly enough of the world-class treatment she has received from St. James’s hospital, where she will soon be undergoing breast reconstruction surgery. “It’s such a fabulous hospital – the doctors, the nurses . . . I can’t praise it enough.”

“You need to be massively informed before you make a decision about undergoing breast reconstruction and the information evenings given by St. James’s clinic were fantastic, I would recommend them to any woman in a similar position to myself.”

This October, Anne’s biggest message to women during Breast Cancer Awareness month is to “notice any change”.

“It’s not just a lump. It could be swelling, soreness, inverted nipples. I had inflammatory breast cancer, so I found a massive swelling very similar to a cyst. It was not something I had ever associated with breast cancer before because everyone tells you to look for a lump. You need to become very familiar with your breasts in order to notice a change.”

She also believes alerting young women to the risks is vital to early intervention. “I didn’t realise so many young women get breast cancer, I’ve met women in their twenties who have it. A nurse in St. James’s told me that ten years ago it was the disease of older women, but since then the age has just come down and down.”

It’s been a life-altering 18 months for Anne Gildea but it’s clear her contagious enthusiasm and positivity have stayed with her throughout her experience. She says it’s reaffirmed her sense of humour.  “I always try to see the funny side of things. There’s something funny to be found in your bleakest moments, I think that’s just Irish humour.”

Although not a Dublin native herself, Anne gave the nation a great insight into Liberties life in the RTE documentary, as the cameras followed her cycling along the local streets, and strolling through the grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Anne proclaimed, “I love it here!”

Having lived on Patrick’s Street since 1999, Anne told me, “I soon realised after moving here that it’s my favourite part of Dublin.”

The future’s looking bright for Ms.Gildea. Having signed a book deal earlier in the year, expect to see her ‘memoir’ in bookshops in Spring 2013. “I’m currently writing it at the moment while I’m in recovery. It’s hard though, I find it very difficult to keep going back over what I’ve been through. Even now I’m not sure I’ve actually processed what happened.”

But Anne’s a fighter and as anyone who is familiar with her work, we can no doubt expect a riveting, whole-hearted, honest read, not short of a few laughs along the way. And for those of you who can’t wait till then, The Nualas will be making a very special Christmas performance in the Button Factory on December 16th.

Image top: Visual Carlow

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