WRITING a play about one’s lived experience of having cancer isn’t easy, but it can be empowering, says singer, actor, comedian and playwright, Karen Egan.
“When you literally have poison going through your system because of chemo, you feel drained of your whole persona at times. I remember feeling just completely de-womaned and really out of sorts. The whole lack of energy can be quite challenging.
“But having some distance from all that, it was just great to write about, and felt empowering.”
Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. This diagnosis and how Karen navigated the subsequent realities of treatment are the subjects of her new online theatre film, Warrior, which is available to stream through The Everyman website this month.
A semi-autobiographical piece, Karen weaves drama, music, surrealism, and comedy throughout the 50-minute play, in which character Katherine Kirk records her thoughts on Katherine’s Log, Starship Anxiety.
“As with real life, you know, we go from the comic to the tragic, and back again. Life can be quite dark at times but can also be light and wonderful,’ says the former member of Irish comedy singing trio, The Nualas.
“And it’s in the darker times that humour really keeps me going. Humour and my amazing sisters kept me going through treatment. I said to my sisters, your job is to make me laugh, which they most certainly did. And not only that, but they also took care of me and I felt I was sort of sitting on cotton wool really because they really helped buffer a lot of difficult and challenging situations.”
This humorous outlook kept Karen ‘incredibly giddy’ the day her sister brought her to the hairdressers to have her head shaved.
“It was one of the funniest days of my life, which seems an odd thing to say. But in general, I suppose having a bald head was the least of my worries, because there were so many other concerns I had.”
One of Karen’s concerns related to the lack of control she felt as a patient.
“It’s something I really want to show or give a hint of in the play - the sense of chaos and anxiety, and the many conflicting feelings that can go through a patient’s head as they are experiencing treatment. When you are a patient, you have to relinquish control,” adds Karen, who was living between Ireland and Finland when she was diagnosed.
“And in many ways that can be a good thing, to just let the experts take over, but from a psychological point of view, it can feel very disconcerting, and it can be really challenging… not knowing what’s happening, or being in a position where you just feel frightened.
“And I suppose, perhaps by showing this turmoil in some way, I hope that it gives the power back to the patients or former patients watching the play.”
As well as working on the launch of her album, Charlatanne, Karen had been working in Finland at the time of her diagnosis, performing a play commissioned by Rakastajat-teatteri, called Kippis (Finnish for ‘cheers’), about women and alcohol.
“Just before I launched the album, I went to my GP,” says Karen.
“I literally had a list of things that I wanted her to look at. It was things like, you know, a sore back, I couldn’t sleep, I had a funny toe. And, by the way, I’ve a bit of a lump, can you have a look at it?”
After being referred for a mammogram, Karen was called for an ultrasound a few days later. When she finally got a breast cancer diagnosis, her initial reaction was complete denial.
“While it wasn’t an official diagnosis, I kind of knew something was wrong when people started handing me cups of tea. A week later, I was given an official diagnosis and I remember thinking, I don’t have time for this. That’s how crazy one’s brain goes when one is faced with that kind of news.”
Even back in 2015, Karen remembers seeing the Irish medical system as close to breaking point.
“You would see so many people, so many patients, so many medics, so many nurses, in particular, who were absolutely exhausted. I often wondered who was taking care of them,” says Karen.
“But there are so many people involved, it’s almost like a factory. It’s kind of alarming to see people coming in and out for treatment because there’s just so many of them, but I suppose that reflects the society we’re living in now.’
Karen is grateful, though, to have been part of a public health system “whereby, once you fall under the radar, and certainly with breast cancer, you know, you really are taken care of. They really seem to keep you in their fold, as it were, and they’re just marvellous people really.”
It’s now been seven years since Karen received her diagnosis. Although her show is called Warrior, Karen is clear that she’s not a warrior, but rather, “I was lucky”.
Warrior is streaming on demand until April 3. Tickets from everymancork.com.