By Colette Sheridan
For soprano Cara O’Sullivan, a cancer survivor, the Irish Cancer Society’s provocative advertisement campaign is “a bit too close to the bone.”
The teaser part of the campaign includes people saying: ‘I want to get cancer.’ This has resulted in a lot of negative reaction. But the core message is ‘I want to understand cancer,’ and ‘I want to stop cancer – before it gets you.’
With rates of cancer diagnosis on the rise because of an increase in population and life expectancy, it’s predicted that by 2020, half of the Irish population will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. The Irish Cancer Society aims to increase awareness and highlight the need to get checked.
Even though it was just over 20 years ago when Cara was diagnosed with cancer, she finds the ad campaign “a bit too close to the bone. Whether the ad campaign is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know but certainly, I’m all for enlightened awareness.”
Cara has a beautician to thank for drawing attention to a lump on her leg.
“Without Ciara Wilson’s little bit of intervention, I don’t know where I’d have been. I recall seeing a lump on my upper right thigh in February twenty years ago. I was 34. I remember thinking it was cellulite. I didn’t know what cellulite looked at as I hadn’t had any. The lump wasn’t big at that stage.”
As part of preparing to make her debut with the Welsh International Opera in August 1996, Cara was on a weight loss programme, “trying to tone up and look after myself. I felt great and I went to see Ciara to get my legs waxed which I’d never had done before. While she was doing the waxing, I said to her: ‘Isn’t that cellulite terrible?’ She said that it wasn’t cellulite and that maybe I should get someone to have a look at it. I remember that burning in my brain. The following day, I went to my GP. Within a week, I saw the surgeon, Mr Richardson, now retired. He initially thought it was just a fatty lump. But three weeks later, he had another look and said the lump was getting bigger. Biopsies wouldn’t have been as common at that time as they are now.”
Cara’s lump was removed. Shortly afterwards, she was told the lump was a low grade cancer, a tumour in one of the muscles in her leg. Cara recalls her mother being in a state of shock. Meanwhile, Cara was trying to organise her trip to Wales. She went to see a radiologist who said that she would need to start radiotherapy in three weeks.
Cara said this wasn’t possible as she had to work in Wales. She said she could have the treatment in Cork when she returned from her prestigious job a few months later.
“I said that I was not going to give up this opportunity for anything.” She was to sing Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in Cardiff followed by a tour from August to December.
Thankfully, the radiologist suggested that Cara could undergo treatment in Velindre Hospital in Cardiff where he knew a radiologist.
“So I started my treatment the day I got there. I was done every morning. I had to undergo 30 sessions over six weeks.”
She had no real adverse reaction to the radiotherapy although she lost the ability to sleep, waking up every morning before 5am.
“I kept asking when was I going to get fatigue and sickness? I was told that I was young, healthy and strong and that I was going to be fine. And I was. I did get tired. Waking up so early was one of the hardest things. But I was well looked after. The hospital allowed me to be there at 9am. Rehearsals started at 10.30am so I’d have my treatment and then go home for breakfast and wash myself. I was struggling to have showers because I was very sore.”
Management at the Welsh National Opera knew about Cara’s treatment as did the director and conductor.
“But nobody else knew. I just wanted to get on with it. But at one stage, the baritone playing the don caught a hold of me. I had to explain to him and to others what was wrong. While I said I was doing fine, I told them to stay away from my right side. I said that if I needed to fall down for the opera, I’d fall on my left side.”
When she returned to Cork, Cara went for check-ups every six months.
“All was fine as far as I remember. People that were virtual strangers were unbelievably good to me. I got the check-ups for five years. Since then, I get my bloods checked twice a year. I don’t really need to do that but it’s for my own reassurance. The reason I got radiotherapy was because the chances of the cancer coming back in my leg were high but the chances of it going anywhere else were low. I still believe I was one of the lucky ones.
“I’ll be forever grateful to Ciara for recognising that the lump needed to be checked out.”
Ciara is the new president of Network Cork, the organisation for women in business and the arts.
Cara and Ciara keep in touch, forever bonded by a lump that required immediate attention.
- Cara O’Sullivan will be in concert with special guest, John Molloy, accompanied by John O’Brien and Ciara Moroney at the National Concert Hall on January 26 and at University College Hall, Limerick, on February 4. She will also be at the Cork Opera House on February 12.