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'You don't want to have to look at your mother's face when you tell her that you've cancer'

Newly appointed Cork GAA chairperson Tracey Kennedy speaks to The42 about her experience with cervical cancer and her new role in the county board.

IN JANUARY OF 2015, Cork GAA vice-chairman Tracey Kennedy booked an appointment for a smear test.

Tracey Kennedy Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Killeagh woman was already in the groove of getting these tests done regularly, as per the medical advice for women everywhere in relation to cervical cancer. Not every woman has learned the importance of adhering to the instruction, despite the fact that 300 women get diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in Ireland.

More worryingly, 90 women die from the condition every year in this country.

Kennedy was already sold on the idea of getting regular smear tests. Her father had been taken by cancer, and she was intent on following any protocols that would ensure her family never had to endure another diagnosis.

Unlike breast screening examinations which detects cancer, a smear test can uncover pre-cancerous cells and have the patient monitored more closely before their condition worsens and develops into cancer.

Kennedy had delayed this particular test by about a month. It wasn’t intentional, and like many others, life had intervened to distract her from getting it done. There was a letter hanging up on her fridge reminding her to book it, but it wasn’t until European Cervical Cancer Prevention week kicked in that she was spurred into action.

Usually, patients don’t hear anything about the test until a few weeks later, but the results of Kennedy’s examination were a cause for concern.

“I got a call fairly quickly,” she tells The42, “like normally you get a letter to say everything is fine after six to eight weeks. I got a call after about three weeks to say that I had these pre-cancerous cell and that I needed to go for further exploration. That was scary.

“I was referred to the colposcopy clinic in St Finbarr’s and all these new words [came up] and I was Googling [the condition] of course, as you do. It was fairly scary, but I went for the colposcopy, which is just like a smear test except that they use a fibre-optic camera to examine your cervix more closely. At that, they said there was definitely pre-cancerous cells there.

“It’s usually just abnormalities, but mine was a bit further down than that. They took a biopsy and they came back to say they were CIN 3, which is the most advanced stage of pre-cancerous cells.

“Then I had to have those cells removed and these are all day procedures. Not pleasant at all but when they did the cystalgia analysis on those cells, they found there was actually cancer there.”

There’s no sense of anguish or fear in Kennedy’s voice as she recounts these events to me in a hotel restaurant in Cork. She knows of other survivors of cancer who don’t feel as comfortable talking about their experiences, but Kennedy understands that she has a profile which extends from her involvement in Cork GAA, and she’s happy to share her story in the hope that more women will commit to getting the test done.

A glance at her Twitter feed confirms as much. Amidst the many tweets pertaining to local and national GAA news among other things, she also uses her account to raise awareness about Cervical Cancer and how the smear test saved her.

Kennedy has always felt welcomed while volunteering at administration level in the GAA, and worked alongside many women in her club Killeagh. But as she moved up towards the inter-county ranks, she found that she was often surrounded by men at meetings, which she admits felt somewhat ‘isolating’ at times.

She went to see the movie ‘The Post’ recently, where Meryl Streep plays the former publisher of the Washington Post Katharine Graham, who had to decide whether or not to publish a story exposing US Government secrets about the War in Vietnam, thus putting the newspaper at risk.

Source: 20th Century Fox/YouTube

As Kennedy watched Streep’s character in board room meetings filled with men, she thought to herself, ‘yeah, I can identify with that.’

But whatever obstacles she had to overcome in that regard, this challenge was of an entirely different scale.

Her condition was caught at an early stage and it was officially labeled Stage 1 A1 cancer. Death was never a potential outcome in her case, and ironically, A1 was exactly what she later become after undergoing surgery.

But when the news was delivered to her initially, she couldn’t help but succumb to panic for a short while.

“There were tears for a few minutes until I sort of got my act together and realised I wasn’t going to die. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who get the diagnosis much later on.

“At least I had that reassurance, whatever happened to me the likelihood was that I was going to come through it.

But yeah, there’s something about the word cancer and my father had died from cancer. So, our experience in the family was not a positive one. But the overwhelming feeling I had from very quickly on was how relieved and lucky I was. If I hadn’t gone for the smear test… And I still feel that, how lucky I was not to be much further advanced when it was discovered.

“I didn’t have to have any chemo, surgery did the job so I didn’t have to have any unpleasantness on top of it all.”

Willie Ring, Pearse Murphy, John Crean, Gerard Lane, Uachtaran CLG Criostoir Ui Cuana, Tracey Kennedy, Daragh Sargent and Ciaran O'Leary Kennedy and the other members of the Cork county board at the 2011 GAA congress. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The experience naturally brought memories of her father’s diagnosis to the service, and she made the decision not to tell her family about the cancer until after she was told that her prognosis wasn’t fatal.

I have my mother and my sister and I would say if for no other reason, go for your smear test, because you don’t want to have to look at your mother’s face when you tell her that you’ve cancer.

“It was horrific for my family, particularly my mother because she would be the type of the person who would be very strong and wouldn’t want me to know she was worried and wouldn’t want me to know she was upset. She would never show that to me.

But I know from chatting to friends of hers how difficult it was for her to hear that even though I didn’t tell them until I knew that it was going to be ok. But telling my sister and her husband was very difficult, probably the worst part of it.”

Kennedy is an English and French teacher, but her diagnosis exposed her to a whole new world of words and medical terminology. She was privately Googling her situation as well and discovered that she might require a hysterectomy.

Such a procedure would compromise her ability to have children, and she can appreciate that that would be devastating news for someone who was planning on starting a family. But her immediate concern was getting herself cancer-free.

“We had a couple of meetings about what the options were because I was young enough and I didn’t have children. They were kind of wondering about preserving my fertility but I suppose when it becomes a choice about possibly having children at some stage and maybe getting worse cancer, it was a relatively easy decision even though it sounds like it wasn’t.

“I wanted to make sure the cancer was gone and that it wasn’t going to come back. So I went to get a hysterectomy. It was a big operation because I’d never had surgery of any kind, I’d never spent a night in a hospital.

I’m probably lucky in that at that stage of my life, it wasn’t really a priority. Some time I may regret not having children but it wasn’t a priority for me at the time. I’m very lucky, my friends have beautiful children that they allow me to share.”

There was a time in her life when she rarely had conversations about smear tests or cervical cancer with her friends, and she feels that society still has more strides to take before the subject becomes more normalised.

Kennedy has paired up with a friend to remind each other to book their tests and they always get in touch with each other after to let them know when they have made the appointment.

Some women avoid the smear test out of embarrassment, while others are afraid of the possibility of a cancer diagnosis. Kennedy cautions any woman in that frame of mind to park those concerns and book that appointment.

“I would advise any woman [to get the test],” says Kennedy.

“The screening is there for women between the ages of 25 and 60 – go. You can have it done by a nurse, so even if your GP is a male and you’re not comfortable about it, they all have nurses now and the nurse will do the test.

I can understand people don’t want to get bad news or whatever, but the amount of diagnosis is relatively low. It’s a very curable cancer if it’s caught early.

“I just find it difficult to imagine that people don’t want to know. There’s obviously some reason why one in four women don’t go regularly.”

Kennedy is the vice principal of the Carrigaline Community School and is organising exams at the minute, having stepped away from her teaching work in the classroom. She also has her new role of chairperson of Cork GAA, which she is still settling into after taking office in December.

A general of the re-developed Pairc Ui Chaoimh The redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Kennedy never played Ladies Football or camogie, and as she puts it, she didn’t quite have the skillset for the games.

“I always use that song, ‘All God’s creatures gotta place in the choir.’ And I’m the one who just claps their hands,” she says with a smile.

But the GAA club in Killeagh was always at the centre of her life growing up. She even used to chill out with friends on the pitch.

After starting out as a secretary at the juvenile level of the club, it was never Kennedy’s ambition to one day become county chairperson. She simply loved the administrative side of the GAA, and was eager to stay involved for as long as she could.

She eventually went on to succeed Ger Lane as the first female county PRO for Cork before progressing into the position of vice-chairperson after another election three years later.

“You can’t go into a sideways position in Cork [GAA],” she explains, “you have to [go up]. At the time, that position was becoming vacant, Ger Lane was going to head for the chair. I went for that because I liked being involved. I just wanted to stay involved.

“I did my three years and during my last year, it became apparent that it was unlikely I would be challenged for the chair so it happened, I didn’t have to fight any election this time, I was elected unopposed.”

As well as becoming the first female chairperson in Cork GAA, Kennedy was also the second woman in Ireland to land the role after Róisín Jordan was ratified for the top job in Tyrone in 2014. Jordan has since been replaced by Michael Kerr of the Carrickmore club, making Kennedy the only active female chairperson at the moment.

One of the expectations placed on Kennedy’s shoulders as the new chairperson is to rectify the fact that the 11-time All-Ireland winning Cork Ladies team have yet to play in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Ciara O'Sullivan The Cork Ladies team after winning the TG4 All-Ireland senior title in 2016. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It wasn’t possible to achieve that during the league, but there are efforts being made to review the situation and look for a possible fixture to host at the county grounds during the championship.

Kennedy’s gender adds a bit more pressure to the role in that respect, but she accepts that.

I’m certainly getting more pressure than any previous Cork GAA chairperson on this, and that’s fine, that’s ok. It is something that should happen and it’s something we all want to see happen.

“It’s nothing to do with any inherent opposition to it. Camogie has been played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for a long time now. It’s possibly that the relationship just goes back further because camogie has been established longer.”

Kennedy doesn’t want to make any drastic changes during her time as chairperson, and feels that a lot of things in Cork GAA are working quite well. Establishing a relationship of trust among the clubs is something she wants to achieve, and with 167 of those dotted around Cork, she has a mammoth task ahead of her.

Having more women follow her path in GAA administration is something else she wishes for in the future.

I’ve said it in a few speeches that there’s no point being the first one if you’re the only one,” says Kennedy.

Somewhere in the back of her mind though, among all those thoughts about Cork GAA and the needs of her students in Carrigaline, are her lingering worries about cancer.

European Cervical Cancer Prevention week was celebrated once again recently (Jan 28– 3 Feb) and it coincided with Kennedy’s most recent smear test.

Although she is completely free of the cancer symptoms, those concerns will always be there. Getting the test done is what rescued her, and it’s also the only thing that can really allow her to keep moving on from it.

“Yes, it is [still on my mind]. I’m still waiting on my result of my most recent one-year test and everyday that goes by and I haven’t got a call is brilliant because the longer it goes before I get the results, the better it is.

I know from talking to other people who have had cancer, I think that fear will always be there. I don’t think I’ll ever be free of that fear because nobody thinks they’re going to get cancer. You always think that it’s not going to happen to you and it’s going to happen to someone else.

“When it does, it’s a real confidence knocker. You realise you are mortal after all.”

You can find more information about how to book a smear test at cervicalcheck.ie

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