Mary Crilly has overcome cancer and is more determined than ever to help victims of sexual violence

Mary Crilly has overcome cancer and is more determined than ever to help victims of sexual violence
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

CORK’S Sexual Violence Centre founder Mary Crilly has overcome cancer following a major operation and months of intense treatment.

The happy news came just ahead of today’s International Women’s Day and the anniversary of Sexual Violence Centre Cork, which Ms Crilly founded 36 years ago.

It was around this time last year that Mary learned she had stage-three bowel cancer.

While she admits to being terrified by the diagnosis it has only strengthened her determination to keep fighting for survivors of sexual abuse.

One of her main concerns was around the future of the charity which she set up when her daughters were just toddlers.

“I went into hospital for a colonoscopy,” she said of her cancer diagnosis.

“It was just a routine examination. Never once did it on dawn on me that this could be cancer.”

What followed was intense shock and panic.

“When they told me I was in a state of shock.”

“Cancer was the kind of thing I read about. It didn’t happen to people like me. I don’t know why I thought I’d be the exception. It’s like people who suffer sexual assault. They never believe it will happen to them.”

The days that followed proved extremely difficult for Mary.

Ms Crilly leading a protest against victim blaming last yearPic/Video; Larry Cummins
Ms Crilly leading a protest against victim blaming last yearPic/Video; Larry Cummins

“I had to wait until after the bank holiday to find out just how bad the cancer was. I wasn’t sure what my life would be or if I would be able to work anymore.

“I was convinced I would be told that I had six weeks to live.

“I don’t know where I got the six weeks from. That number just entered my head for some reason. I was told I’d need to have surgery straight away. They needed to move on it quickly. One of my initial thoughts was how am I going to tell my kids.”

Mary eventually came to terms with the situation.

“I will never say I battled cancer, but rather consciously chose not to fight it. The only thing I could do was go with the flow.

“My one piece of advice for anyone coming to terms with a diagnosis like mine would be to listen to your body.”

Mary remained strong, balancing intensive chemotherapy sessions with her work helping abuse survivors.

“I was undergoing chemo so wasn’t always able to go to work. When you’re going through something like that it’s hard to see yourself coming out the other side.”

She spoke of her high hopes for the future of the centre.

“The way I feel now is that I’ve nothing to lose. This has definitely made me more determined. I meet people who have been through hell and back. Some of them are still going through hell. My hope is to put a dent in victim blaming.”

Mary said her work can often be frustrating.

“It’s not a nine to five job you can just switch off from. It can also be highly frustrating. When you’re in the courtroom it’s like being taken back 100 years. It always as if the woman’s credibility is on trial and not the defendant. Every time I feel like giving up I see “that girl” in my mind’s eye. That’s when I realise I have to keep going.”

She reflected on how far she has come since the centre was opened.

“That was back in the eighties. At the time I gave it six months. I hadn’t even been to college at that stage and didn’t feel like I had anything to offer. All I knew was that I was really angry about what was going on.”

She described the challenges.

“The clergy was very strong back then. While the Gardaí are great to us now but the ones at the time weren’t happy with the work we were doing because it highlighted what was wrong in society.

“It was impossible to get women to run in the mini marathon for us. Anything to do with children or cancer was always popular but there was a perceived shame in supporting a charity associated with rape. A lot of women told me that they wanted to get behind the charity but couldn’t be seen wearing the t-shirt.”

Mary will be presented with UCC’s inaugural Equality Award for her role in promoting the equality, diversity and inclusion with a focus on her work as Director of the Centre for Sexual Violence.

The award will be presented as part of the President’s Symposium on Gender Eqaulity this Friday at 6pm.

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