Coleen Nolan has seen her family blighted by breast cancer. Since her older sister Anne was first told she had the disease 23 years ago, sisters Linda and Bernie also received their diagnoses.
Sadly, Bernie died in 2013, and bravely speaking to OK! about how breast cancer has affected her loved ones, Coleen admits that the Nolan family get through it all by finding a glimmer of light in dark times.
“Breast cancer has hit my family so much that it’s laughable,” she says. “We get through it all with humour, because what has happened to us is a joke.
“Just when you think it can’t hit us anymore, it comes back and whacks us again. If it was a film you’d think it was an unrealistic storyline because surely so much couldn’t happen to one family. But it does and it has.”
In 2000, Anne, now 72, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had treatment. Linda, 64, was diagnosed in 2005 and had a mastectomy in 2006, while Bernie was diagnosed in 2010.
“Anne’s diagnosis hit me like a ton of bricks,” Coleen, 58, tells us. “Luckily she caught it so early. She said she felt what was like a grain of sand in one of her breasts. She had chemotherapy but she didn’t have to – she just had to have a lumpectomy.
“But by the time they caught Linda’s, it was quite advanced so she needed a mastectomy. I still thought, ‘Well, Anne’s managed it, so Linda will.’”
Devastatingly, three years after being told she had breast cancer, Bernie passed away at the age of just 52. “When I got the call about Bernie’s diagnosis, I cried my eyes out. I remember thinking that we couldn’t be lucky enough for three sisters to survive this. I had this awful feeling,” shares Coleen.
“Losing Bernie was a massive blow to the family. If there was a party to be had, Bernie would find it. If there was a reason to get us all together, she would do it. She was the smallest of us all, but she was the most enigmatic.”
In 2020, Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, though thankfully she has now been given the all-clear. Linda is currently living with secondary cancer which was initially in her hip but has now spread to her liver and brain.
“Linda was doing well, but then she broke her hip in 2017 and knew it wasn’t good when three doctors walked into her hospital room. She was told she had secondary cancer,” explains Coleen. “Earlier this year she fell over around four times in one week. It turned out that it had gone to her brain.
“She’s having treatment and has regular scans. The last one was positive and showed that it hadn’t grown. Any bit of good news is amazing news, though our lives revolve around the results. But what can you do? I really hate cancer.”
With the family’s ethos being to find the good in things, Coleen explains that although she “dreads” the disease and is “scared” of it, she does her best to combat any feelings of anxiety before they grow.
“I try not to overthink it because I could scare myself to death. Worrying isn’t going to help me and stress, if anything, could lead to other problems. I try not to let it consume my life,” she says. “But because I am aware of it, I check myself and I’m not afraid of seeking help. Hopefully, if something did happen, I would be able to catch it in time so that it could be treated.”
That said, the anxiety is there. Coleen now checks her breasts “as much as I can”, has an examination once a year and a mammogram every two years due to her family history of breast cancer. But it’s not just her behaviours that have changed since hearing the news – her mindset has too.
“Obviously I do worry about it because it’s very much in my family, so it does make me think about it more than I ever did before any of them got breast cancer. Before then I thought something like this would never happen to me,” she admits. “At first, Linda had moments where she questioned, ‘Why me?’ But now she says, ‘Why not me?’ I try not to think about it every day because, genuinely, it would stop me from living.”
Following Anne, Linda and Bernie’s diagnoses, the Nolans decided to have genetic testing. “We all thought there had to have been a genetic component. The girls got tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene and none of them carried it, so there was no point in me getting tested,” she says.
During this time, Coleen even considered what she could do to potentially minimise the risk of being diagnosed. “I looked into elective surgery at one point because I didn’t want to live waiting for the phone call. But Linda talked me out of it, funnily enough. She said, ‘I don’t want you to do it because it’s a really big operation.’”
Given that breast cancer has affected so much of her family’s life, Coleen – who shares sons Shane Jr, 34, and Jake, 31, with Shane Richie and daughter Ciara, 22, with Ray Fensome – is keen to teach her children about the signs and symptoms of the disease.
“I speak about breast cancer openly with all of my children, not just Ciara. I tell my boys about it because a lot of people forget that men can get it too,” the devoted mum says. “Ciara occasionally gets worked up about it, which is understandable given what’s happened. I always encourage her to get checked out if she is worried, just so she has peace of mind, because I know how it feels to be concerned.”
But while Coleen worries about her children’s futures, they also have their own concerns for her.
“I think they worry more about me. They’re always on about my health and if I get ill they’ll tell me I need to go to the doctors when it’s just a cold,” she laughs. “But they also know that I get myself checked and if I found something, I’d get it seen to straight away. I went recently because I kept getting a pain in my breast that wouldn’t go away. In the end it was fine and it was due to the menopause – I didn’t even know that was a thing.”
It’s this awareness and ability to ask questions without fear that Coleen tells us is a crucial part of being vigilant when it comes to the disease. “Even if you’re embarrassed to go to the doctor because you think it’s nothing, just put your mind at rest and go. Let them tell you it’s nothing. That’s what they’re there for,” she says.
“People tell me that they’ve found a lump but they’re too scared to get it checked. In most cases, it’ll be nothing to worry about, but in some cases it will be. Of course breast cancer is scary but it won’t go away just because you’re scared to get something looked at. Catching it early on means there are more options.”
And despite cancer having played such a huge part in her family’s lives, Coleen explains that there have been some positive moments to take away from the past two decades. “As a family, I didn’t think we could be closer. In some amazing way it’s brought us together even more and has made us aware of how important it is to tell each other we love each other,” she says.
Coleen also praises how Anne and Linda have remained “positive” and “full of life” throughout it all. “There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed, but Linda is the first person to phone me and tell me to get up and do some work. She’s amazing. She does have her down days where maybe she does want to scream, cry and be angry at the world, don’t get me wrong, but she’s been incredible throughout it all.”
Linda’s approach to life is what has encouraged Coleen to live with no regrets and head out next year on her first solo tour, Naked, where she will take to the stage to sing, dance and tell stories in her own inimitable style.
“Part of the reason why I’m going on tour is because of what’s happening to Linda,” she says. “I was thinking about what my regrets would be if something happened to me, like if I received a breast cancer diagnosis, or I got to an age where I was too old to do anything, and one of my regrets would be not performing. Even if it was just one more time.”
Experiencing fame with her sisters in the 70s, and being a familiar face on the Loose Women panel since 2000, taking to the stage solo is a step outside of Coleen’s comfort zone. “I’ve always performed with my sisters. Even on TV I’m surrounded by my Loose Women. The thought of doing it solo is scary but I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve been thinking about it for a few years so I can’t keep putting it off just because I’m scared. It’s called Naked because I feel vulnerable but I’m really excited and looking forward to it.”
Coleen’s tour kicks off in the Nolans’ hometown of Blackpool and it’s safe to say that her greatest fans will be cheering her along every step of the way. “My sisters are so supportive and so proud of me. What’s happened to Linda has given me a different perspective on life and I think if she can go through what she’s going through, I can go through nerves and fear. I don’t want to live with regrets. I’ll only regret not trying.”
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