“IT’S not just you that goes through it, it’s your whole connection of people — your family, your friends. It really does affect everyone and the centre is literally like the glue holding it together.”
That’s how cancer ‘warrior’ Nuala O’Brien described the impact of the Cork Cancer Care Centre.
The Cork Cancer Care Centre was founded by Ann Dowley Spillane in February, 2011, when it was known as The Girls’ Club.
“It was women supporting women and just a shoulder to lean on, and also to get people to get out,” explained the centre’s general manager, Linda Goggin James.
While Ann sadly passed away in 2017 following her own battle with cancer, Linda has worked to maintain and continue her message and the initial concept of the centre.
“Her wording was ‘Bringing fun back into their lives’, because, she said, just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can’t have fun,” Linda explained.
“It just kept developing from there and it really was just supporting people through cancer, no matter what stage you’re at.”
While the need for the services has remained clear through the pandemic, fund-raising for the centre has seen a devastating decline, with their biggest hit in October, November and December, 2020. Compared to 2019, funds were substantially lower last year.
Linda described the centre as “a lifeline” for many people and noted its importance at what has been a particularly tough time for people dealing with cancer.
“I think the biggest thing through Covid was fear,” she said. “Fear of the unknown. I really think that was the biggest impact we had.
“We’re only now beginning to see how much it’s impacting people. I think especially when you’ve cancer, you feel very isolated, but when Covid came, it was like a double isolation for them.”
However, throughout the pandemic, the centre continued to provide its services.
While Helena O’Brien initially went to the centre for counselling, she soon discovered one of the benefits that has been reiterated by each of the cancer ‘warriors’ who have attended Cork Cancer Care Centre. “What I ended up getting was an incredible network of women,” she said. “You become part of this exclusive club that nobody wants to become a part of but, when you’re there, you’re so grateful to have these amazing women around you who are such an incredible support network.”
Helena was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 and started using the facilities at the centre about six months after her diagnosis.
As a single mum, she said the women at the centre had been “the most understanding” of the services she contacted.
“I went in, I met Linda, did the paperwork and I went in for my first ever counselling session,” she said.
“I remember saying to the therapist, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able for me…’ and my God, I’m still with her today and she’s amazing.
“To think this is somebody who gives up their time to help those who really, really need it is just amazing.”
Speaking about her diagnosis, Helena said it was a difficult time.
“I had just bought a new house and we moved in days after I had been diagnosed and [my daughter] was going to start in junior infants the following September, so it was definitely challenging.
“I used Lego to explain to her the type of surgery I had. When I explained to her what chemo was, she called it mummy’s magic medicine,” she recalled.
Helena described her cancer diagnosis as like being on “a rollercoaster”, but at some point the rollercoaster stops and it becomes time to “start living your life after cancer”.
She noted the important role of the Cork Cancer Care Centre in that transition and during the time when you have to face “the real world” again. “You still need help, you still need guidance, you still need support, but it’s recognising that that’s what you need, and then having the resources to do it, and that’s what Cork Cancer Care Centre do.
“They provide you with the resources that you need or your family needs in times when you’re very vulnerable and you’re trying to just navigate your way through life basically.”
Despite the great services, it took some convincing for Nuala O’Brien to start attending the centre.
She was just 23 when she discovered “by chance” that she had cancer after a fall on a night out in 2016.
However, it was not until 2017 that Nuala began to attend the centre, following some persuasion from her mother.
“She literally plagued me and plagued me, and I didn’t go and then, once I relapsed the second time, I started getting really bad panic attacks and the founder of the centre, Ann, she rang me when I was in hospital at two or three in the morning and convinced me to come in.”
When she started, she was “so afraid” to go into the centre.
“I had a completely different perspective of it. I thought it was going to be all doom and gloom,” she said.
“Then when I got in and saw how chilled it was, then I started coming back all the time.
“It was literally like a second home and it really, really got me through it and it got my family through it.”
Due to being so young, she said she was the only person she knew to go through cancer.
“I was going to college and everything, so I was still very much young and going on nights out all the time, and yet I had to wear wigs and not have eyebrows or eyelashes and I wasn’t able to do everything my friends were able to do.”
Nuala is now an ambassador for Just Say Cancer, which supports the under 30s at the centre.
She said she was honoured to have the role and said that, any chance they get, her family try to organise fund-raisers for the centre.
“I honestly don’t know how me or my family would have got through that stage of our lives [without the centre]. They were just literally your left arm.
“They were there for support. It’s hard to even explain. I don’t know what we would have done, honestly, without them.”
She added: “Anyone from any walk of life can be affected by this. It doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion you are, how much money you have, if cancer is going to come, it’s going to come and it’s all about the people that are around you to get you better.”
Liz Muldoon echoed Helena’s description, describing her cancer journey as like being “thrown on to this bloody rollercoaster that you don’t want to be on”.
“It’s really hard to describe,” she said.
“In a sense, I suppose I was slightly prepared for it because I had found a lump and I had gone proactively to the GP and got it checked,” she explained.
Liz, who has two young daughters, was diagnosed with stage two aggressive triple-negative breast cancer in 2019.
Although she did not know a lot about the Cork Cancer Care Centre, she heard about it from Helena, who she met along her cancer journey.
“As it happened, myself and Helena were put sitting together in the chemo ward in the Bons and I don’t know whether the nurses regretted it or if it was intentional — I don’t know — but we were sitting together from about 9.30am to 5pm and I’d say we barely came up for air we were having such a conversation all day,” she said.
Liz used the three main sides of the centre’s services.
“First of all, you can access all of the counselling there, which is incredible. The counsellors they have on staff are all fantastic.
“Then there’s all of the holistic therapies, where you can have everything from reiki or lymphatic massage or just even mindfulness and acupuncture — anything.
“The third thing is camaraderie, friendship and meeting people, and I suppose that was probably my main reason to go — the company, and just even to get to know other people who are kind of in the same boat as you.”
Liz still uses the services and, pre-Covid-19, she said she would even pop in for “tea and a chat” when she was in town.
“It’s an invaluable service. All of this under one roof — you wouldn’t know how to access these therapies or how to access counselling if you had to just go randomly looking yourself.
“Having the centre there, with everything under one roof, and the best thing ever is it’s all free of charge.”
For Liz, the centre is like home.
“It’s like walking into your mom’s sitting room — somewhere familiar, somewhere comforting.”
- To contact Cork Cancer Care Centre call (021) 4949090 or email corkcancercarecentre@ gmail. com.
- To donate, visit https://