Linda and Anne Nolan told David Hennessy about their new book, their trying last twelve months following devastating diagnoses for them both and wanting to find cancer and ‘kick its head in’.
In their new book Stronger Together, Linda and Anne Nolan detail their hell of living with cancer for the last year.
Last year, Anne was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and Linda’s incurable secondary breast cancer spread from her hip, to her liver.
And it was far from a first brush with cancer for either of them.
In 2006, Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer. She received treatment and was given the all clear. However, in 2017, doctors discovered a form of incurable secondary breast cancer on her pelvis.
Anne was first diagnosed in 2000. She received treatment and was declared cancer free.
And of course, cancer was also the horrible disease that took their sister Bernie in 2013 at the age of 52.
Known for selling 30 million records as part of the singing sibling act The Nolan Sisters and then The Nolans, it was just before the pandemic hit that both Linda and Anne were toasting their successive treatment and second chances on the reality show The Nolans Go Cruising.
This would make for bittersweet viewing as they had both received their devastating cancer diagnoses within days of each other and before the show had aired.
Last December, Anne was able to reveal that her cancer was gone while Linda’s news was not so good as her cancer is treatable but not curable.
In Stronger Together, Linda and Anne share their journey over the last year. They talk about the shock of diagnosis, the realities of treatment and losing hair, and other side effects, that are distressing but never gets mentioned.
Linda told The Irish World: “When they asked us about writing a book we both went, ‘Well, would anybody buy it?’ And then they said, ‘Your journey could help somebody else who’s sitting at home on their own with no family’.
“We’re lucky, we’ve got family around to support us but they could be sitting at home on their own and maybe look at stuff that we’ve said and go, ‘Oh, I’ve been through that’. It’s nothing medical. It’s just our story of how we’ve dealt with it really.”
Anne continues: “We used to get asked quite a lot of questions. I had a friend going through breast cancer just after I had finished my treatment and she said to me, ‘What’s chemotherapy like? Does it hurt?’ That’s question I never thought about really but a lot of people must think that because they don’t know so it was kind of like, ‘Let’s write a book and put all these things in it that people ask questions about’.”
Linda says: “We’ve had that kind of response saying that they like that it was open and honest and I think that’s one of the things we said as well, ‘Yes, I will but it will be warts and all because nobody’s life is a bed of roses’.
“I’ve helped a fan through her cancer. Like Anne, she asked me, ‘Does radiotherapy hurt? Does it make you lose your hair?’ And I said, ‘No, neither of those things’. Radiotherapy is easy to be fair. You’re very tired after it but it’s not painful.”
Anne agrees: “These are the questions that people who are going through it or starting treatment ask and sometimes they forget to ask their oncologist or their nurse so it’s good that they can read this book and find the answers for themselves because we’ve actually been through it.
“I hope that people that do read our book get some comfort from it because there’s a lot of things in there that might help people with questions that they might not have thought to ask. I hope it’s going to be a comfort.”
Linda adds: “There’s so much help out there that people don’t even realise. I’ve phoned the Macmillan line just with a question and they’re fabulous so don’t be alone. That’s the main thing. I know our book says Stronger Together but if you’re alone, you don’t have to be alone. There will be people out there to support you.”
Sometimes reliving painful and heavy memories, both say the experience of writing the book was draining to say the least.
Anne says: “It was tiring and it was emotional going back over things that were quite unpleasant.”
Linda adds: “It was tiring. Sometimes I would come down full of the joys of springs because I would be talking about good, happy things. And other times when I was going over- like Anne said- stuff that you kind of closed the book on like when Brian died and the grief I went through and how difficult it was and then I would come down looking for a strong beam.”
In Stronger Together, the sisters talk about when, having been shocked themselves by the diagnosis, have to give the news to their families.
Anne remembers: “I didn’t tell my grandchildren. My daughters told their children that their gran had cancer and of course the first thing they say is, ‘Is she going to die?’
“I was a bit more honest than my daughters. My daughters were trying to save their kids’ feelings. They said, ‘No, no, she’s going to be fine’. But I kind of said to them, like I said to my daughters when they were young, ‘It is a life-threatening disease, there are no guarantees but we’re going to do our very, very best and the doctors are going to do their very, very best so I’m going to live until you’re teenagers at least hopefully’.”
Linda says: “Kids are so funny. I opened the door to Maureen’s granddaughters, and I think they were about 9, 8 and 4, and the two older ones went: Big eyes. I’d forgotten (they hadn’t seen me bald).
“And I said to them, I’d forgotten, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Aunty Linda lost her hair because of the tablets I’m taking’.
“‘I think it suits you, Aunty Lin’, one of them said and the other one went, ‘I think it’s alright’ but the four-year-old was rolling around laughing. I said to her, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘You look so silly’.
“That was the ice broken, they just get on with it.”
Anne adds: “My granddaughter said, ‘I don’t like you with no hair, why can’t you have hair? I don’t like you like that’.”
In times of crisis, the Nolan family would normally rally around but in times of Covid, they weren’t able to offer the same support.
Linda says: “It’s a lonely road anyway, these kind of things as much as you have support.
“In 2006, when my husband Brian was here, if I woke up in the middle of the night and was sitting on the bed feeling rubbish he would just rub my back and say, ‘Is there anything you need? You’ll be okay’.
“When Anne was diagnosed, we would have all been round there. We would laugh, we would cry, we would be there all day and night but of course with Covid we had to stand outside her gate waving and it was really difficult.”
Anne says: “When I had my first cancer in 2000 obviously my husband was around and my kids were there and my sisters. I could go out to restaurants and the theatre and cinema and do normal things. This time around it was like being locked in a cell really. You couldn’t do anything and we were all too scared to do anything because our oncologist said to both of us really that the virus could be fatal because of our immune system being so- Well, we had no immune system because of the chemo so it was really hard. Couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t be with anybody.”
The silver lining in getting diagnosed within days of each other was that the sisters could have their treatment together meaning they wouldn’t have to be alone.
Linda remembers: “Just as a joke I said, ‘You’ve heard of the Chemical Brothers but we’re the chemo sisters and it kind of stuck then.”
Anne goes on: “Linda asked them could we actually have our chemo together because when we actually went to the unit, all the seats were socially distanced. Where you would have a relative sitting beside you while you went through your chemo because of Covid, that wasn’t allowed of course.
“Linda said, ‘We’re together anyway. We’re sisters. We’re in the same bubble. Can we have our chemo together?’ They were great. They let us do all that. It was fabulous really.”
The book also sees the sisters sharing poignant and painful memories of seeing cancer take its toll on their sister Bernie and finally having to say goodbye to her.
Linda says: “We think about Bernie every day.
“‘Cancer schmancer’, she would say and everything was about research. She used to say that knowledge was power. She was a real battler as well. When she went bald, she went to a big TV awards, that’s how everyone saw her bald for the first time. She’s a massive part of our lives still.”
Anne continues: “It was just awful the whole thing, the whole process. She was so bad just before she died. Really, really in pain and it was shocking, terrible to see someone who was so full of life end that way and so young as well. She was only 52. It was so young. Such a lot of life to live.”
Linda explains: “She came off her chemo. She was so ill on the chemo that she decided not to have any more towards the end but we were all there of course. She was frightened.
“I told Anne the other day Bernadette said to me, ‘I don’t want to die alone. That’s the thing I’m frightened about’ .So we were all there up in the bedroom with her and we just kept saying to her, ‘You’re not on your own, Bernie’.
“I’ve got that fear. I don’t want to die on my own either. That would be really awful. I’ve got them on watch,” Linda laughs.
Anne reflects: “One thing I remember that I thought was really poignant was my youngest daughter’s wedding. Bernie was there and I remember we were sitting and she was looking at my daughter doing her first dance with her husband. Her daughter Erin was about 12 at the time and Bernie said to me, ‘I’m never going to see Erin do that’. And I felt so sad.”
Linda continues: “And we were with her for Erin’s 18th. I had just been diagnosed so I wasn’t partying with everyone and Erin came and knocked on my door. I opened the door and she went, ‘I miss my mum’.
“She was a force to be reckoned with, Bernie. She was so ill at the end but even then, she was fabulous. We started singing at one point. She was in and out of consciousness and we started singing some harmony stuff and she just lifted her hand as if to say, ‘Don’t sing whatever you do’. Even then she was still having a laugh.
“She was the life and soul of the party. She was always laughing. She was always the last one at the party.”
Linda adds: “It would be three in the morning and she would go, ‘Ah, don’t go to bed, you wimp’.
“Of course we hate cancer. The thing about cancer is you can’t find it to kick its head in. I said to my counsellor, ‘I just want to find it and kick its head in’. For everyone who’s ever had it not just because we’ve got it. But I work with a cancer charity called Breast Cancer Now and they believe that by 2050 nobody will actually die of breast cancer because of the research and everything. Bernie was massively into research.”
There is a lovely line in Stronger Together when Linda pictures an afterlife that allows her to see Bernie and her late husband Brian again.
“Bernie, Brian, mum and dad will be there, anyone that we love. I’m frightened of death because I don’t know what’s there. You know these films that you see, somebody dies and then you see them in Heaven? I wonder what it’s like. It’s really scary. I think, ‘When I say goodbye, am I going to be on my own somewhere?’ And that’s when your religion comes back in.
“I remember when Brian died, I was at Coleen’s house. Her daughter was four and Brian and I had a dog. The doorbell went and the dog started barking and Ciara went, ‘Hudson, stop barking. It’s not uncle Brian. He’s dead’. And me and Coleen were shocked.
“And Ciara went, ‘He is mum, he’s up in Heaven and it’s a big garden and he’s going to have a good time and he’ll be better. He won’t be sick anymore’. And I thought, ‘I love that outlook on what’s going to happen’. But I do think about that sometimes, not all the time obviously. I do think about, ‘What is it? What’s going to happen?’ That kind of thing. Will I be aware? I don’t know but that is one of the things I think about sometimes.”
Anne continues: “When I had my first daughter, I nearly died. I was unconscious for four days and you know people always talk about this light? I didn’t see anything. There was nothing, just black and when I woke up I couldn’t remember anything.
“In a way it’s a bit of a comfort to me to think that if that is how it is… Well, it’s nothing. You don’t see anything, there’s nothing. No pain, no nothing.”
Linda adds: “As we say throughout the book, it’s how you deal with it. It’s what you think. I like to think that I will all of a sudden be in this garden with Brian, and Bernie will come over with a gin and tonic and we’ll have a hooley.”
Bernie Nolan would have been 60 last year and the family got to toast her on her birthday with a socially distanced dinner.
Anne also got to celebrate making it to 70 last year, something she was not sure she would be able to do when she was diagnosed.
“When you’re told you have got a life-threatening disease, the first thing you think is, ‘How long am I going to be here for?’ I didn’t know whether I would live to see my 70th,” she says.
Linda says: “Anne had decided for her 70th, before lockdown and cancer, she wanted to have a big party with black tie, ladies in evening dresses and a big swing band.
“Then of course it was the sublime to the ridiculous. It was nothing. We were lucky in the fact that we were filming At Home with the Nolans and we worked on the day of her birthday so that meant we could all see her. It worked out really lovely.”
Anne adds: “It was brilliant. At one time I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to do anything. I won’t be able to see the girls and I won’t be able to see my sisters’. It worked out fabulous because we were actually filming and they included my daughters in the filming. It was fabulous.
“In actual fact, it was better. If I had had this big do, I would have been going around talking to everybody and I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time with my close family as I actually did. It was better in a way.”
Linda says: “My 60th was amazing. I had the most amazing party but I was the only one sober at the end of it. I had about three drinks and didn’t eat any of the food because I was saying hello to everyone.
“We were just thrilled that we would be able to see her. That was our main thing.”
The sisters have to continue living with cancer. Linda’s treatment continues and although the news is good for Anne, she will not be considered cancer-free for years.
Linda said: “I have to live with it. My cancer is there no matter what. It’s not curable. I have a CT scan every three months and I do try in between having the scan and getting the results I try not to think about cancer. Obviously on the day of the scan you think, ‘I wonder if it’s going to show anything up’.
“But then after that I try not to do that for the whole two or three weeks because otherwise cancer’s won.
“I don’t want it to define me, cancer. I’m living with it.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all sweetly smelling. Sometimes I’ve been out with everybody and I get in and I have a moment where I slide down the wall and think, ‘Oh God, I don’t think I can do this’.
“And then of course you wake up the next day and you’re happy that you’ve woken up and you’ve got another day.
“That’s why the sunshine is so lovely.
“I have a window by my bed. In 2009 and 2010, when I was really struggling with depression, I used to pull back the curtain and if it was raining and dismal outside, I would just turn over and go back to sleep.”
Anne says: “Although I’ve been told there’s no cancer, I’m not actually free of it for five years. You don’t get discharged for five years so I’m still having treatment. I still have to go and see my oncologist. I still have to have scans. They can’t find the cancer but there’s no guarantees it’s not going to come back. It is what it is.”
Linda admits in the book that she waited too long to get her lump checked out.
One of the strong messages of the book is not to wait to get a worrying lump checked out.
Linda says: “Anne is amazing. She’s had cysts all her life but she used to go straight away and I think this is why she had the outcome she had.”
Anne says: “I had my first lump removed when I was 29 and luckily that was benign. That was quite a big lump and ever since then whenever I felt a lump I would always go the next day.
“With my first cancer, when I was 49, as soon as I found the lump, I went to the doctors and the same with this.”
Linda laments: “I left mine. I left it for a year trying to work around it thinking, ‘I can’t go into hospital now. If I can just do this pantomime, it will put money in the bank’. Because Brian had skin cancer. The consultant said even without getting the results of the biopsy, ‘It is a cancer for sure and it’s a mastectomy’. So don’t wait. You can wait as long as you like but when you go, you’re still going to need treatment and it might be harsher treatment than if you went straightaway.”
Anne concludes: “If it is cancer, it’s not going to go away on its own and if it’s not cancer, then you’re relieved, aren’t you? Don’t wait.”
Stronger Together by Anne and Linda Nolan is out now.