“I CAN’T even go up the moving stairs in Penneys, I’m so bad!” says Liz Cullinane, discussing her fear of heights.
While this mother-of-three from Dublin Hill has had her fair share of mountains to climb in an emotional sense, one gigantic physical mountain looms for her next month; one which will make Penneys’ escalator seem like a molehill.
On August 9, Liz will leave Cork to climb Kilimanjaro and raise funds for Cork Cancer Care Centre, a charity she embraced after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.
Furthermore, she will embark on the climb in memory of her mother, Kathleen Burke, who passed away from breast cancer in 1996 at the age of 52.
The loss of Kathleen — known as Kitty — from Gurranabraher, is felt as keenly today as it was 23 years ago. Liz remembers her mother being very gifted with her hands, making her own curtains and Aran jumpers.
“She was a real character. She loved Irish dancing and jazz music. She was always in good humour,” recalls Liz.
“And she had it very hard; with six children, it wasn’t easy. But we were well looked after and wanted for nothing.”
The family became aware of her diagnosis when she showed them a hospital letter outlining how she was to have a mastectomy.
“She had a mastectomy and chemotherapy but a year or year and a half later it went into her lungs. Lung cancer is what she died of,” explains Liz.
“After the lung diagnosis her decline was very rapid. At Christmas [that year] I invited them all up to my house. Nurses from palliative care spoke about putting her up in Marymount but I said no. Mam stayed in bed all Christmas Day; she wasn’t well enough to have Christmas dinner with us.”
Liz, who was married with small children at the time, moved home the following January 7, when her mother was in and out of consciousness. Two days later, when her beloved mother was slipping deeper into a coma, Liz lay in next to her and softly told her to go to sleep and close her eyes.
“She didn’t open her eyes but said, ‘I love you’. Those were the last words I heard her say”, says Liz.
Since her mother’s death, Liz had annual mammograms and, having already been bereaved, one would imagine her own diagnosis would have been a terrible shock. Eerily, it was something she says she was expecting.
“In 2014, I was diagnosed at the very same age, in the very same breast. But it was in my head that I always knew it would happen. I was very calm”, she says of the moment she got the bad news.
“I didn’t tell my youngest for a while because I’d been through it with my own mother. He was broken-hearted. But the day I told my father was worse than when telling my own family. He was hysterical; he was broken-hearted.”
Liz had 35 sessions of radiotherapy but avoided chemotherapy.
“As a hairdresser I would have been gutted if I lost my hair,” she says. “But radiotherapy took a lot out of me. I was very tired and very emotional.”
It was during this time that she began her close association with Cork Cancer Care Centre, which was then known as The Girls Club, founded by the late Ann Dowley Spillane. It was since re-named to welcome both male and female clients.
“When I went in, I was very nervous at first. I didn’t know what to expect. But it’s an absolute haven. The minute you go in there is such warmth and a lot of laughter for the silliest things. A lot of people don’t realise the help they can get until they go in there.”
Now finished her treatment (although continuing to take the medication Tamoxifen for five years), Liz volunteers at the centre as the in-house hairdresser, helping prepare clients for the fitting of their wigs.
The idea for Kilimanjaro came from the inspirational Ann Dowley Spillane, who herself took on the challenge of the highest mountain in Africa, although she wasn’t well at the time, and since passed away, in October, 2017.
Like Ann, Liz is getting training advice from the best in the business, Pat Falvey, who has brought her to Carrauntoohil in preparation for her mighty challenge.
“He was watching my breathing and he said, ‘You’re well able’. He said, “You’ll fly it”. He told me to do plenty of hill walking, so I’m walking every night, getting in a lot of hills. The hills are tough. I used to walk five or six miles a day before I got sick. Then, with the treatment, I piled on a lot of weight but I’m four stone down now again.”
Liz has had a few health scares since her journey with breast cancer, not least with a bout of hip pain that divided the opinions of medics. One declared he was 99% sure that cancer had gone into her hip, while another thought it was wear and tear.
Thankfully, there is no evidence of cancer there, although there is cause for concern elsewhere: “When I finished radiotherapy they found nodules on my lungs. I have to get tests done every three months and up to a couple of months ago everything was stable. But I’m fully convinced the lungs will get me eventually.”
However, she has been deemed fit enough to climb, even if she will need her inhalers to help open up her airways. So how is she feeling about the challenge now?
“I’m very excited but getting very nervous the nearer it gets. There are only two things that could go against me — when you hit the altitude, your headaches can be a problem. I’m absolutely petrified of heights and they bring you on the toughest route. And it’ll be dark. Most of the travelling is done by night as it’s very hot during the day.”
And what might be the second problem?
“I’ll be sharing a tent — and I’m claustrophobic! I’ll be eating the inhaler, I’d say!”
Not only is her upcoming climb to raise funds for Cork Cancer Care Centre, it is also part of Liz’s own mission to seize the day.
“I’m doing everything I want to do,” she says. A bucket list of sorts has been compiled, although Liz is keeping its contents close to her chest.
She has one major feat ticked off already though.
“I had a swim with dolphins the year before last in Lanzarote. It was absolutely fantastic and very emotional.”
In a way, Liz’s climb won’t be nearly as difficult as what she plans to do when she reaches the summit.
“I’m bringing mam’s scarf to Kilimanjaro. It’s her blue scarf, the first one she wore when she started chemo and the last one that came off her head before she was buried.
“I’ve told Pat to make sure his phone is working because I’ll need to play a song when I’m hanging mum’s scarf — Celine Dion’s Mama. I’m going to leave the scarf there. I’m still very emotional about her. I’m hoping this will be another step for me because every single day I could still cry over her. I can’t leave her go. Can I walk away and leave her scarf? It’s going to be very mixed feelings.”
Liz believes her mother will be with her for every step of her climb but she also needs public support for the cause. She has set up a Go Fund Me page with a €7,000 target, find details on the Cork Cancer Care Centre’s Facebook page.