I always thought cancer happened to other people... not me

Helen Cuddigan is halfway through her treatment for breast cancer — a disease which her sister fought and won, but which claimed the life of her close friend, Emma Hannigan. To mark this personal milestone and to honour her friend, Helen hosted a fundraiser for Breast Cancer Ireland, writes Chris Dunne
I always thought cancer happened to other people... not me
Committee members who organised the recent Wig and Tash Bash fundraiser in the Blackbird, Ballycottonm, which raised €8,500 for Breast Cancer Ireland: Bree Allen, Aine Flynn, Fiona Clark, Margaret Cuddigan and Adrianna Hegarty with seated Cllr Susan McCarthy, Helen Cuddigan (centre front)  and Rachel Allen. Picture: Howard Crowdy

THE years and the distance between the circle of friends, Helen Cuddigan, Rachel Allen, and Emma Hannigan, could never break their close bond of friendship.

The girls, who naturally gravitated towards light and laughter, like moths to a flame, were a loyal threesome, always.

“Emma never let the cancer treatment she endured for so many years dull her incredible sense of fun or love of life,” says Helen.

Author Emma Hannigan. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan
Author Emma Hannigan. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan

Author Emma Hannigan passed away in March, 2018, age 45 after an 11-year battle with breast cancer.

Helen, who is now going through treatment for breast cancer herself, having been diagnosed in July this year, is taking a leaf out of her late friend’s book, and she is intent on raising awareness of the disease and funds to help fight it.

Last weekend, Helen hosted a fabulous fun event called the ‘Wig and Tash Bash’, in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland, in the Ruin Room at the Blackbird, Ballycotton.

Helen wants to ensure future generations do not have to go through what Emma did, and what Helen herself is going through now.

“I always thought cancer happened to other people, not to me,” says Helen, who is 49 in December, and who is mum to Louis, 14 and Matilda, 12.

“Even though I am in the middle of my treatment for breast cancer, I feel it is a seriously important message to keep aware, and if my story helps even one person catch their cancer early enough to be cured, than it’s worth sharing my own journey,” says Helen, who was keen to host an event to celebrate and mark her halfway milestone.

Helen, like Emma Hannigan, who was Ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland, wants to wage war against cancer and get on with living.

“I must have been crazy to organise the Wig and Tash Bash while having treatment, but raising awareness and much-needed funds motivated me,” says Helen.

“I want to raise awareness and much- needed funds for Breast Cancer Ireland, and give back to Emma somehow as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

Helen acknowledges the comfort she has received from the words in Emma’s book, All to Live For during her own Breast Cancer fighting journey; ‘Life is short. Life is precious. It is not a dress rehearsal.’

“I’m enjoying dipping in and out of Emma’s narrative,” says Helen.

Helen Cuddigan Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Helen Cuddigan Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy

Helen had the troops in her corner to rock the Blackbird pub for a mighty cause.

“It also helped hugely that I have surrounded myself with a committee of extremely capable women who helped make the event happen and make it a huge success,” says Helen.

“The all-important sponsors must be thanked too. Fundraising is impossible without them. We had many discussions about organising a colourful event in the memory of our dear, departed late friend, Emma.

“Emma loved coming to the Blackbird pub when she lived in East Cork. She did the Ballymaloe School Cookery Course, continuing to work in Ballymaloe House afterwards for a period of time.”

Emma harboured ambitions to be a chef and she skipped happily down to Ballymaloe from Bray in 1990 where she made life-long friends, including Helen Cuddigan and Rachel Allen.

Loads of those friends turned out in the Blackbird at the weekend to remember the popular woman whose humour provided her with a powerful weapon against cancer.

“The dinner for 50 people was all sponsored generously for Breast Cancer Ireland,” says Helen.

“The ’80s disco in the pub was great fun and the perfect excuse to dust off the party wings and come out and party on a bad hair day.” Helen often resurrects sage advice from Emma, who she still continues to gain huge strength from.

“Put on the big girl pants and the red lipstick and get the job done!”

Helen, like Emma, is damned if she’s going to let cancer ruin her life. Losing her luscious red curly locks wasn’t going to stop her in her tracks.

Losing your hair during chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer may seem like the least of anyone’s worries, considering the evil lurking within. However, it’s an extremely stressful chapter in a sufferers’ Breast Cancer/ chemo journey. It affects your personality as well as your looks.

Helen bravely chose to face it head on, thanks to the fact that not only had her close friend Emma already been there, but her little sister, Clare, had as well.

“Clare’s breast cancer at 44 was discovered by accident,” says Helen.

“The doctor was investigating a cough when cancer in Clare’s breast and lymph nodes were discovered. Two years on, Clare is in remission.”

And her big sister is now tackling the same disease.

“I found the strength to at least take control of this chapter literally head-first,” says Helen, speaking about losing her lustrous hair.

“Pre-treatment, I decided to chop off my long red (albeit coloured at my age) locks into a short ‘pixie’ style before the chemo got it,” says Helen.

“Thanks to Vicky in the Wig Clinic in Cork who made the ordeal easier. This was still a traumatic experience, but she made it so much less traumatic. She even took my sister’s wig and gave it a make-over to look like exactly the hair I had arrived with,” says Helen.

Helen Cuddigan pictured with Matilda and Louis Cuddigan at the recent Wig and Tash Bash fundriaser in the Blackbird, Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Helen Cuddigan pictured with Matilda and Louis Cuddigan at the recent Wig and Tash Bash fundriaser in the Blackbird, Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy

“It was a surreal afternoon, but I felt I had taken control and there was a certain amount of satisfaction at having a one up on my cancer.”

Helen scored another win against cancer at the funfilled fundraiser for Breast Cancer Ireland.

“For the record, my wig on Friday; was of course, Breast Cancer Pink!” she says.

“Emma would definitely have approved of it!”

Emma, full of determination, strength inspiration and love, would certainly have approved of her friend’s decision to come back to her roots and her childhood haven beside the sea in the pretty hamlet of Ballycotton when her marriage sadly broke down.

“My dad grew up on 60, Main Street, Midleton,” says Helen.

“The family lived over my grandad Cuddigan’s hardware shop. Even though I grew up in Essex in the UK, our family always had a holiday home here. We used to come to Cork on holidays on the Innisfallen. When my marriage broke up, my kids were only five and three years old.”

Helen picked an ideal place to bring up her children among friends and when she secured employment working in a marketing role for Darina Allen; everything began to fall into place.

“It was the start of social media. So I managed to set up an ideal situation where I could teach and inform people about promoting and managing their businesses. I earned an income to provide for my kids.”

Helen’s business mushroomed and now she works exclusively for Ballymaloe House, part of the Allen family business in the east Cork countryside where she met her close friends Rachel and Emma all those years ago.

She met somebody else who would have a positive impact on her life.

Emma said; “Love comes along when you least expect it.”

“The wonderful Michael Tattan and I have actually been friends since when I did the Ballymaloe Cookery School course in 1989,” says Helen.

“A friendship turned romance that surprised us both eight years ago, but that I am eternally grateful for!”

Helen is grateful she caught her breast cancer in time.

“Because of my sister, I was watching out and I did check. Routine mammograms didn’t show up anything. When I found a tiny lump, because of my sister’s history, I had an ultra-sound at the Breast Clinic, as well as a biopsy, which is not nice.”

Waiting for the results was not nice.

“I was out of my mind worrying, not sleeping,” says Helen.

“The diagnosis was incredibly shocking. But you get on with it.”

Helen and Ritchie Duhig, Ladysbridge, seen at the recent Wig and Tash Bash in the Blackbird, Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Helen and Ritchie Duhig, Ladysbridge, seen at the recent Wig and Tash Bash in the Blackbird, Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy

She was in good hands.

“Professor Seamus O’Reilly is incredible. When I was called back in to get the bad news, Dr Martin O’Sullivan told me I was not the luckiest in the world, but my condition was fully treatable.

“Fortnightly chemotherapy was part of the treatment plan, as well as a double mastectomy due to family history. While the side effects of chemotherapy are horrible; the treatment works.”

Helen’s good genes are standing to her.

“My mum is 80. Dad is 79. Recently they went on a cruise to New Zealand.”

The community in east Cork are her second family: “I’m blown away by the community spirit,” she says.

“Friends and neighbours drop soup and juice on my doorstep. It all makes a massive difference.”

Being near the soothing sea in the company of her family, friends and her loyal canine friend, Kiwi, Helen is surrounded by an out-pouring of love.

“I love an early morning swim in the sea or a walk on the beach, and morning coffee afterwards,” says Helen. “It sets me up for the day.”

Emma was a swimmer too. She said: ‘The only reason I swim is to get into my jeans and I can eat more chocolate!’

Chris Walsh and Margaret Cuddigan from Midleton seen all dressed up for the Wig and Tash Bash fundraiser in the Blackbird, Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Chris Walsh and Margaret Cuddigan from Midleton seen all dressed up for the Wig and Tash Bash fundraiser in the Blackbird, Ballycotton. Picture: Howard Crowdy

“Emma was incredibly positive despite the odds,” adds Helen. “She was such an inspiring person.”

Helen realises the scourge of cancer doesn’t discriminate.

“It affects every age and every walk of life,” she says.

“Hopefully when my daughter, Matilda, is in her 40s, there will be a pill to pop or an injection in the bum to treat breast cancer.”

Helen knows every milestone, every fortnight, is a win, a strike against cancer.

Meanwhile, Emma’s spirit is alive and well in the hearts of the dear friends who she loved so well. As she wrote: ‘I will be there in your hearts and you will be in mine.’

To donate to Helen’s fundraiser visit: https://give.everydayhero.com/ie/wig-tash-bash

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