Ennis woman Laura Brennan wowed the nation on The Late Late Show a few weeks ago in her role as an advocate for the roll out of the HPV vaccine by the HSE that helps prevent cervical cancer. She spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh about her passion in getting a very important message across and how she won’t let cancer define her life.
LAURA Brennan has it all….and that’s most definitely the gospel according to herself, as she smiles, laughs, talks and talks more — “I have a loud voice and I’m not afraid to use it,” she says — about life, the cards she has been dealt and how she plays them.
In her situation others would be crestfallen; being bitter would be another natural disposition, while there would be plenty of others as well when running the full gamut of emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis, or worse still in her case, an incurable cancer diagnosis.
Laura doesn’t have time for any of that though and doesn’t have any interest in it either, because she views things through a very different prism that could be parsed down to her being too busy living and enjoying her life.
Living and enjoying it with her family, with her friends, with her work colleagues, with her dog.
“I don’t see any other way of looking at it,” she muses. “Nobody has a crystal ball to look into the future, so why dwell on the future too much.
“You deal with tomorrow when tomorrow comes, because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. I’m going to enjoy today while I’m here. I don’t see the point of looking down the road,” she adds.
“I totally understand people who feel anger (at cancer diagnosis),” she continues, “but what have I got to be angry about? I don’t see anything to be angry about. I am so lucky to live in a country like Ireland. I could live over in Saudi Arabia where I have no rights; I could get into my car on the way home and my life could be gone in seconds; what have I to be bitter about? I have the most incredible family; I was able to get my own house; I have a lovely dog and I have amazing friends — I have a way too much to be thankful for and to be happy about than to be bitter.
“It’s being myself. It’s being brought up in such a strong family that it’s just embedded in me that when this happened it wasn’t ‘why me’ or ‘why did this happen to me’ or ‘what did I do’. It just happened to me and you just have to deal with it.”
LAURA is just 25 years of age and has cervical cancer, a cancer that over the past 18 months has metastasised, which means that from the elation of being given the all-clear of cancer it returned and in her case and in her own words is now “basically incurable”.
That diagnosis has a finality about it — it’s shattering, for family and for friends, but in Laura it unleashed different a different point of view:
“I didn’t have any real emotion”, she told The Late Late Show, “because I kind of knew it. He said, ‘Laura do you know what this means?’ And I said ‘I do doctor,’ and he said, ‘what does it mean?’ and I said it’s no longer curable’ and he said ‘how do you feel about that? Why aren’t you upset?’ I said, ‘Doctor there are people leaving their houses every morning in their car and without any warning their life is taken. Children are dying of cancer every day, I have cancer but I’m here today, what reason do I have to be upset?’.”
Laura doesn’t do upset — instead she just too busy living, determined to live her life and determined to make a difference. And that she makes a difference is there for all to see in the way people have been overwhelmed by the positivity, attitude and action that she exudes.
All the time.
“At the start it was hard for my family,” she admits, “because no one wants to hear that their child or sister has cancer — I remember my Mam was saying that she wished it was her. That’s the way people think, it’s supposed to happen to parents, not their children.
“But you won’t go to my house and see sadness; you’ll go to my house and you’ll hear laughing joking. Nothing has changed and that’s the way we want it to stay for as long as possible. We don’t sit down and talk negatively, there is so much positivity and it’s a great place to go.
“I have two of the best parents anyone could have — if Carlsberg did families they’d do my family. They are incredible, their strength. It’s a two way system — I am strong for them and they’re strong for me.
“This is because at the end of the day cancer is a small part of me,” she continues. “I’m Laura from Ennis, I’m 25, I’m obsessed with beauty, I’ve an amazing dog and I happen to have cancer. I’m not Laura who has cancer. It’s never a main thing in my mind. It hasn’t a major impact on my life — I just go and get on with my life.”
This is exactly what Laura was doing when in December 2016 she was first diagnosed with stage 2B cancer.
“That was curable and the treatment I was on for that was five sessions of chemotherapy and 28 sessions of radiation and three sessions of internal radiation,” she recalls.
“That was all with a view to cure me. I was told the first time that the majority of people who go through treatment give up work, but I stayed working throughout.
“I’d get into my car in the morning and drive into Limerick and get my radiation. I was an area manager at the time and I was covering all of Munster and Galway and going into Kilkenny. After my radiation in the morning I’d get on the road and get on with the day.
“People used to say it’s a great way to get my mind off it, but my mind was never really focused on it because I was just getting on with my life as best I could.
“I was given the all-clear in May 2017 and everything was perfect — I was on top of the world apart from the fact that I was put into early menopause with my treatment. I got a mortgage, I bought a new house, I got my dog, I started a new job. I was only in the job two weeks when I found out that the cancer was back.
“Two days after hearing that I said to myself ‘I have to do something to stop this happening to anybody else’. I don’t think there’s any other way of looking at it. If there’s something that can stop this from happening to other girls why wouldn’t I speak out about something that could potentially save their lives?”
This is how Laura has emerged as an advocate and champion of the HPV vaccine that protects girls from developing cervical cancer when they grow up and works best when given at the age of 12 to 13 years. When Laura was that age there was no roll-out of HPV, but now she’s in the frontline of a HSE programme about the vaccine.
“I have found 99.9 per cent of people been positive towards me,” she says, “but there is that .01. They say that the HSE is using a vulnerable sick girl to get their message across, someone even wrote — this was before The Late Late Show — that I was a bogus women. Obviously I wish I was an actress; I wish I was acting, but I’m not.
“It’s the claim that the HSE are using me. No one would ever use me in my life, because I am very outspoken and I will say whatever I want to say. Then there’s the mothers whose daughters have suffered from auto-immune conditions, which they are blaming the vaccine for.
“It’s natural when you get diagnosed with something that you look for something to blame, but blaming this vaccine is putting young girls’ lives at risk. It is scaring parents off. If you hear about something that could possibly cause your daughter chronic disease then it would scare you, but if you did your facts and did your research you would find out that this is one of the most tested vaccines ever and it is nothing to be scared of. If we can get it up to 90 per cent we can practically eradicate five per cent of all cancers. If there is a vaccine there that would prevent cancer why wouldn’t you use it,” she adds.
Her profile exploded with her appearance on The Late Late Show, which came after she filmed an awareness video for the HSE to launch their HPV campaign nationally. “The Late Late Show was the biggest platform in Ireland, so it was great to go on it,” she says.
“It was something I really wanted to do, because if I could prevent anyone from getting what I have, why wouldn’t I do it. What would stop me doing it? Absolutely nothing. It was common sense to be honest, there was no thought to it.
“Ryan Tubridy said ‘I have never seen anyone less nervous in that chair before they go on’. My attitude was that ‘we’re going on to have a chat, a bit of craic, it will be grand. It’s something that I am so passionate talking about, so there’s no nerves about it at all. I talk so much anyway.”
For Laura, doing The Late Late Show, not to mind a host of other media commitments to get her message has been a no-brainer — part of her own personal journey that she’s embraced wholeheartedly ever since her first cancer diagnosis early 18 months ago.
“I have obviously met so many cancer patients from all my time going through treatment,” she says, “so I can see the impact that cancer has on people’s lives and how much it affects them, so if I could protect any people from that I would do anything in my power to do it.
“I’ve me people in the cancer ward; I’ve met people in work. I remember a lady coming into me and she looked really down. When I’m in work I don’t look like I’m sick. She said to me, ‘my friend recommended this cream and by the way I have cancer’. I said, ‘no way, so do I’.
“We sat down and we talked. This was even before the campaign started and she said ‘I’m so touched by you and I feel that I can go through treatment — it’s going to be a lot easier for me to have met someone like you’.
“I go to work, even though for the last few weeks I’ve barely got any work done because everyone is coming up to me. There’s no separating anything; it’s all part of the bigger picture. If customers talk to me about it in work I have no problem and I am open.
“I remember before the campaign started customers would be commenting on my hair and I’d say, ‘sure this is only a wig’. I’ve never hidden my condition. I remember when I was initially diagnosed I remember getting a phone call from a family friend. I told them I was diagnosed with cancer. The shock down the other end of the phone. I always found that if I was the first one to mention it made it easier for them.
“The thing about saying cancer is that you’re nearly saying a bad word — it was like dropping f-bombs constantly any time I said cancer. But seeing as I’m so comfortable talking about it no one is afraid about it. I am just too busy living.
“And I got fantastic news [last week]. I went through six rounds of palliative chemo when I was rediagnosed and the aim of the palliative chemo was there was going to be three outcomes — it was going to shrink the cancer, the cancer was going to stay the same or it was going to metastasise to other organs. I was delighted to hear that it had worked and has shrunk my cancer a good bit. I got the best possible outcome from the palliative chemo that I was on. It helps me to keep living my life they way I’m living it.”
It’s this personality, charm and outlook on life that has wowed so many people over the last number of months — at the official launch of the HPV campaign with the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, through to her many radio appearances to The Late Late Show and beyond.
“It is so humbling,” she says, “that my outlook may make it easier for people. I hope people in hard positions might see that there is a bright side to everything. I don’t even like the word positive — that I’m so positive or whatever. It’s just me. It’s humbling, all the comments, but the only thing that matters to me is that the rate of the vaccination goes up.
“Since The Late Late Show I’ve got so many messages on all my social media accounts, between people with depression, or people going through cancer, or people who have lost people through cancer. They see the value of today, they see how important it is to live for today. That has been really humbling, that I made a change that way.”