Linda and Anne Nolan have been beloved household names for nearly five decades. But when they both received a devastating diagnosis in March last year, they went from preparing for a big Nolan Sisters reunion tour to becoming the self-titled “Chemo Sisters”.
Life was transformed and they prepared to fight for their survival on a chemo ward in the pandemic.
Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, having originally had it 20 years ago.
Linda was told her secondary breast cancer had spread to her liver, having first been diagnosed in 2007.
A year on, Anne, 70, is cancer free, and while Linda, 62, cannot be cured, she can be treated.
Having also lost their sister Bernie to cancer in 2013, the pair know what it’s like to get the news everyone dreads.
So here the singers, authors of new book Stronger Together, answer those burning questions you might have if you or a loved one are diagnosed.
What’s the best way to tell your family you have cancer?
Anne: I broke the news to my loved ones gently but without beating around the bush. I tried to make it sound positive and just said exactly what I had been told by the doctors, and what the next steps were.
Linda: Have a messenger. My first time, in 2006, my husband Brian told Coleen and she told the rest of the family.
The second time, in 2017, I had fallen at home and what first was thought to be a fractured hip then turned out to be secondary breast cancer. My sister-in-law works at the hospital, so she phoned my family. In 2020 it was my sister Maureen’s job to tell everyone.
How do you explain cancer to children?
Linda: I think you have to be careful not to frighten children, but don’t patronise them either. Just be real but mindful. I told my nieces and nephews I wasn’t very well and that I had to have some treatment in hospital to make me feel better. I could live a long time with secondary breast cancer, so they only need to know the basics at the moment.
Anne: Explaining it to children can be difficult, depending on their age.
I think if they are very young it’s best just to say you are not well and that the doctor is going to give you medicine to try to make you better – but explain that the medicine might make you sick and your hair might fall out.
With older children I think be honest and discuss what might happen: that you might die but hopefully with treatment you won’t, but if that does happen you have had an amazing life.
Should you talk to your spouse about moving on, if the worst should happen? And should you feel bad if you don’t want them to?
Linda: My husband and I both had cancer, so we did speak about life without each other. I told him I wanted him to find happiness again, that he deserved happiness. I joked I would come back and haunt him if he lived a sad life alone.
Anne: I think you should let your spouse know that if the worst happens you want them to be happy – and if they want to marry again that’s fine.
But I don’t think you should feel bad if you don’t want them to move on, that’s just a natural reaction to something you never thought would happen.
How do you find the strength to keep fighting?
Linda: I want to live! I want to watch my great nieces and nephews grow
up. They give me strength, as do my siblings who won’t hear of me giving in.
Anne: You get strength from your loved ones, especially children and grandchildren.
How do you stay positive – and is it OK not to be?
Anne: When anyone has a life-threatening disease, one of the things doctors, family and friends always say is “think positive”. Positivity is important, but it’s very hard to be positive all the time, especially when you’re feeling ill.
Sometimes you just want to shout, “shove your positivity!” and that’s OK – as long as it’s not too often!
Linda: People only mean well by saying this, but there are times when I throw the phone down when it’s sent me a message, or I silently scream as I walk away. The fact that we turn up for appointments, take our tablets and even get out of bed is positive enough.
What’s one thing families and friends don’t do, that they should?
Linda: Sometimes I want them to agree when I say I hate chemotherapy instead of saying “It’s saving your life though”.
I want to scream “I know it’s saving my life which is why I’m standing before you bald as a coot with aching joints, hot flushes and nausea. But please just nod and agree it’s rubbish!”
What is your view? Have your say in the comment section
And always say something, even if it’s “I don’t know what to say”. I have a friend who texted me when I was re-diagnosed in 2017 and I didn’t hear from her again for 18 months because she “didn’t know what to say”.
Anne: Don’t assume how someone is feeling. Ask what they need or want.
Loved ones will often want to send gifts if you’re not well. But what is most welcome?
Linda: My sister Denise sent me a box of things to help me through chemotherapy treatment.
It had ginger sweets to help with the nausea you suffer, a water bottle, a neck cushion for a comfortable snooze and adult colouring books.
Here’s some other advice as a side note – don’t go crazy, spending all your money thinking you’re going to die soon. I did that and, boy, I’ve paid the price since.
Anne: I had many helpful gifts given to me – a bedside table, a fabulous fan you put round your neck to leave your hands free for reading, and loungewear.
Loungewear is great for when you don’t feel well enough to make the effort to get properly dressed, but you don’t want to stay in pyjamas.
We all know of some side effects of chemo, but what are the lesser known ones?
Anne: Common ones are hair loss from your whole body, mouth ulcers and sickness. But less common are constipation and diarrhoea, more or less at the same time, piles and bouts of neuropathy which is like really bad pins and needles.
Chemo can also damage the membranes in your nose, so it’s constantly dripping and you’re constantly sniffing.
Linda: I’ve suffered neuropathic pain in my hands and feet, so I was given yet another tablet to add to the 27 I’m already taking.
Another side effect of the chemo tablets I take at home is difficulty speaking.
If you know me, speaking is never difficult, however chemo can make you stumble over your words, stutter and at times you can’t find the word you want to use. It’s very odd indeed.
What are your top tips for people who might be starting treatment during the pandemic?
Linda: Have your eyebrows tattooed BEFORE chemo. We look like aliens with no eyebrows.
Be sure your phone/iPad is charged up and bring your charger and earphones with you.
Dress comfortably and wear layers. You don’t want tight-fitting trousers or uncomfortable shoes.
Bring goodies. Chocolate, fruit, a soft drink, a sandwich (you know what hospital food can be like…)
Have a “cancer bag”. I have a holdall that has all the medical info I need such as blood cards for blood tests, plus my diary, helpline numbers, and my crossword puzzles.
Everything is always in there ready for my next trip to the hospital.
Do you get scared, and how do you deal with that feeling?
Anne: Having cancer is a very scary and lonely thing. Even though you have people around you, you can feel very alone. I suffered really bad anxiety, because of the pandemic and the treatment. The best way I think to overcome these fears is to talk to a counsellor who can help without becoming emotional like a family member would.
Linda: My cancer is treatable but not curable. So, yes, I do get scared.
I’m scared of dying, I worry about the results of my three-monthly scans, fearing whether it has spread again.
I have counselling on a regular basis which, for me, has been amazing. Yet if that isn’t for you, there are support groups online, or ask your Macmillan nurse for help. Cancer can be a lonely road on your own, so please just ask.