In the coming weeks, you may well see Clare Cregan behind a desk in a local shopping centre selling her poetry. She’s not a poet by trade but if material and ability count for anything in the world of literature, the 57 year-old is already a writing talent.
Clare’s poem ‘Over the Sink’ is the title poem and opening piece of a book recently published by Derry’s Pink Ladies.
She’s a mammy, a granny, a wife and a woman not afraid to talk about the illness.
She has an infectious laugh, a memorable smile and a sense of humour which is indicative of the kind of spirit which personifies Derry’s well-known Pink Ladies.
The sitting room of Clare’s home on the Northland Road is full of family photos. It’s a happy home and its walls show a family who stick together through it all. Clare knows this because she and her family have been through one of the toughest emotional and physical journeys they’re ever likely to face,
Then of course, there’s her other family.
As a Pink Lady she’s one of a very select bunch. In fact, in recent times she’s been appointed spokeswoman for the Derry breast cancer support group, who have become known as force to be reckoned with. The Pink Ladies have shown amazing humour and strength while individually battling the illness feared by women everywhere.
Before 2008, Clare never imagined she’d need a support group in her life. She admits she was never a fan of the group setting and as a mother of three had spent most of her life to that point running a home. She’d also become well known locally as the woman behind Kumon, an innovative after-school learning group.
With hundreds of local school children on her books and a busy life at home, things - as Clare says - were moving along at a comfortable pace. Like millions of multi-tasking women, she didn’t have the time to worry about getting sick.
But after finding a lump in her breast while showering, she was forced to make time. Clare, like most women who’ve been on the breast cancer journey, has laughed and cried. She’s still laughing though, and it’s infectious. It’s a testimony to the strength of the 57-year-old that she has an instant ability to make other people feel comfortable when talking about what’s not a very comfortable topic.
“Being diagnosed was totally mind-blowing, that’s the only way I can describe it,” she says,
“Michael always says it was like an express train hitting the house. It hit everybody and everybody had to work together to pick up the pieces.”
Clare was with her daughter Aisling when a consultant at Altnagelvin told her she had a tumour.
“We were on the way home in the car when Aisling’s husband rang. I remember her telling him that we’d just been told I had cancer, I remember being so taken aback. I was just determined to focus on the word tumour because that didn’t seem as scary but Aisling said: ‘It’s cancer, that’s what a tumour is.’
“After that, for a number of weeks I tried to keep going. I kept working and really threw myself into work, but in the end I had to take a step back.”
Suddenly Clare was plunged into a world of cancer jargon and doctors’ appointments, but one of her most vivid memories of the time is a shopping experience she says she’ll never forget.
“We went to the wig shop in Duke Street,” she recalls.
“I remember going in and trying on different wigs and all of a sudden it all just hit me. Everything that had happened to that point. We went outside the shop and I was sitting just looking at the traffic coming and going and I kept thinking how strange a thing it was that nobody knew what was happening to me.
“It was all so surreal. It was like I was looking at myself going through it all.”
While that was the toughest point for Clare personally, the wig was something which would eventually bring her to tears of laughter, as she explains.
“Myself and Michael were sitting having a glass of wine one evening and the wig was sitting in its usual spot on the wig holder. Michael said he could have sworn it was looking at him because it was in the shape of a head. He said it looked like the volleyball Tom Hanks had in Castaway which he named Wilson. So from there on we called the wig Wilson and when I was going to hospital he’d always shout, ‘Make sure you bring Wilson!’
“Then when the hospital staff got to know it, they started calling it Wilson as well!”
As she received her treatment, Clare had heard whispers about the local breast cancer support group but wasn’t sure she was ready to take the leap.
“A friend of my younger brother’s had told him to tell me I should go along but I just couldn’t see myself doing it. That first night when I walked up the corridor to the cafe in the Gasyard I’d never been more nervous in my life. I was terrified, but when I walked in they just wondered why it taken me so long to get there and I’ve never looked back since.
“The Pink Ladies have taken me in directions I never thought I’d go in and some things have happened that I’d never have thought would have happened in a million years. I didn’t think I’d ever be in the public eye like this and even writing the poetry and maybe even doing performance poetry. It’s mad!”
These days, in between being a granny, a mammy a wife to the ever devoted Michael and an avid Pink Lady, Clare’s looking forward positively with hope that the future will be cancer free.
She has nothing but praise for her husband and family who she says have stood by her at every point.
“They’ve been absolutely fantastic and have kept my spirits up the whole time,” she says.
Clare’s also realistic about the amount she can take on and has come a long way since 2008 when her initial diagnosis prompted her to keep working as hard as she could.
“I just don’t have the same reserves that I did and if I do too much there’s always a price to pay. I had a recurrence last April and had my second mastectomy in May so it’s about not doing too much these days. But with careful management and the tender loving care of my family I’m doing great.”
As for the future, Clare’s health is her priority but she’s also determined to write more poetry and won’t be hanging up her Pink Ladies t-shirt any time soon.
“Ultimately what I’d like to see - in fact what all of us want - is advances in cancer research. In the meantime the Pink Ladies will keep lobbying and supporting each other and any new members who want to join us.
“We will be selling more of our poetry in the coming weeks so it’s an opportunity for people to support what we do. Watch this space!”