Michele McMahon: a messenger of hope for cancer sufferers

By Simon Hart

When Michele McMahon stands up to speak at this year's Pause for Hope service at the Metropolitan Cathedral on 13 September, it will be only her second attempt at public speaking – yet the impact of her first attempt suggests her audience will be kept spellbound from start to finish.

The 46-year-old's smiling eyes gain an extra gleam as she recalls what happened when she addressed a similar audience in Manchester in May. "Some people were coming up to me crying," she tells the Catholic Pic. "It touched them and inspired them and I think that my role in life now is to give people hope. I didn't realise the impact it would have."

The purpose of Pause for Hope is to provide a positive message for cancer sufferers and it is not hard to see why Professor Ray Donnelly, who established this initiative having previously set up the Roy Castle Foundation, sees Michele as the ideal representative. After all, when the former nurse from Knotty Ash was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007 she was told by doctors that the cancer in her right lung was inoperable. "I asked the doctor, 'Will I be OK?' and he said, 'I don’t know.' I thought, 'What do you mean? I am 39 and my kids are 12 and 14 – I've got to be OK.' That was nearly eight years ago and my prognosis was two and a half years."

Those children – daughter Sarah Louise and son David – are now in their twenties, and Michele adds: "I used to pray that I would see my kids grow up – that is all I wanted, I said I'd never ask for anything again and now I am going to be a nan in December."

Reflecting on the ups and downs of the past eight years, Michele explains how she was the beneficiary of a trial treatment – "the Soccar trial" – run by Dr Joe Maguire at Clatterbridge Hospital, which combined chemotherapy with radiotherapy over a five-month period. "I was 39 and used to working 60–70 hours a week and it was really hard going. It nearly killed me. But it has worked so far – I am stable."

Previously employed at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, she had pushed doctors for a correct diagnosis when she first fell ill. "The scans were alright but I was not alright and I told them I wasn't moving from the room until they listened to me and made a plan – and they did and found out it was cancer," recalls Michele, who since her course of treatment has been sustained by "a herbal tea called Essiac" and the power of prayer. "Apart from Dr Maguire the only thing I had was my faith," she explains. "At least once a week I take myself off to the cathedral. It is a place that makes me feel calm and gives me comfort." She is particularly grateful for the support of Father Peter Morgan at St Anne's, Overbery Street who "helped make my faith as strong as it is".

Though she misses her work as a nurse – an attempted return to her old job proved too arduous – Michele was able to care for her parents, Roy and Ronnie, before their deaths from lung cancer in the past two years. Today she helps the fight against the disease in her role as patient representative on the Roy Castle Foundation's Clinical Reference Group. "There is a stigma with lung cancer as people think, 'She must smoke.' You'd never say, 'Skin cancer, oh you must have sunbathed.' It is not right."

She will be speaking again at a fundraising night for the 25-year-old foundation at Liverpool's Crowne Plaza Hotel in October, offering the insight of somebody with more experience of lung cancer than most. "You can't change it so you have to learn to live with it," she adds. "I try to be positive and have a sense of humour. It's no use being miserable, people would just switch off." There is no chance of that when she stands up to deliver her message of hope at the Cathedral next month.