Cathy Kelly: Cancer would have killed me if it weren’t for advances in medicine

Author’s new book challenges women to stop people pleasing

Author Cathy Kelly sitting on floor with legs crossed
Author Cathy Kelly revealed she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer last September. (Barry McCall)

“I’m so lucky that I am coming out of this with a good prognosis. That’s a gift not given to everyone,” says Cathy Kelly, who in July was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Speaking to me via Zoom, without her wig, the novelist spoke to me honestly and openly about her battle and her hopes for her future.

“I was very sick from chemo. For a long time I couldn’t eat anything, but could drink miso soup. I’ve moved onto packet mushroom soup,” smiles the 57-year-old, sipping soup as we speak.

Although having finished chemotherapy treatment at St Vincent’s Hospital in December, Cathy is still having radiotherapy and will be taking immunotherapy drugs for another six months.

“This cancer would have killed me if it weren’t for advances in medicine. Mine is a very aggressive cancer, but thanks to immunotherapy drugs, such as Herceptin, many can now live.”


Cathy admits that her friend and fellow writer Emma Hannigan, who lost her cancer battle in 2018, is never far from her thoughts.

“My beautiful friend Emma went through cancer 11 times with such courage. I love her and still talk to her every day,” she reflects, encouraging women to regularly breast check.

“Most of us are in too much of a rush to take time to stand in our showers and check properly. My message to all women is take time and if you suspect anything, whether it’s a lump, dimpling or just something unusual, gets it checked out.”

Book cover of Sisterhood by Cathy Kelly
Cathy Kelly's latest novel Sisterhood

Cathy’s 23rd and latest novel Sisterhood has just been released.

“Sisterhood looks at what we women really think about, how life moulds us and what happens when that mould gets broken and a stronger woman emerges,” says the mother of two, who during the past year has built up her own sisterhood of support.


“Female friends just are incredible. But when you are diagnosed with something, you need to be able to reach out to others who are going through the same.

“It’s great being able to WhatsApp my sisterhood and tell them exactly how you are really feeling, ask them advice on anti-nausea drugs or encourage them if they are having a scan,” says Cathy, who encourages other women who have been diagnosed with cancer to do likewise.

“When you have cancer you’re going to think dark things and you’re going to have sad days, but that’s okay. You’ll also find that some people close to you just can’t cope with your diagnosis. That’s why making friends with someone going through what you are going through is so powerful.”

Best-selling novelist Cathy Kelly standing
Best-selling novelist Cathy Kelly (Barry McCall)

Cathy, who previously had skin cancer, having a malignant melanoma removed from her hip, faces every day of her cancer journey with determination, but also realism.

“People have different reactions to a diagnosis and treatment. I used to see people with cancer online doing workouts. My only workout was in bed wondering if I was fit enough to drink some lemonade.

“It’s important to stay positive and celebrate the little things that you can do, like a day when you had a shower.

“Cancer fatigue and chemo brain are real,” adds Cathy, who on her good days finds solace in a snuggle with her “fur kid dogs” and a “comfort read”.

Cathy Kelly hugging a dog on a sofa
Animal lover Cathy Kelly (Barry McCall)

“I found comfort in reading books by people I knew and loved, like Patricia Scanlan and Marian Keyes, as well as Australian writer Kerry Greenwood, who penned the Phryne Fisher mysteries. I just wanted to read about love and happiness.”


This is what Cathy is renowned for providing to her own readers – as well as relatable characters, strong female role models and storylines which reflect society.

Themes of family, betrayal, loyalty, depression, grief, parentage, misogyny, empty nest syndrome and gambling addiction are all explored within her new novel Sisterhood.

Born in Belfast but raised in Dublin, Cathy worked for 13 years as a newspaper journalist, before her 1997 debut novel, Woman To Woman, became an international best seller.

“I read three or four newspapers every day. I want to know what’s going on in the world and reflect that,” she says about her writing.

“There are so many ads for gambling. It’s frightening because it’s so easy to subtly gamble and lose an awful lot of money. Thankfully, if I wanted to lose money, I’d just go to TK Maxx,” she jokes.


The main theme of Sisterhood, however, centres around Lou Fielding, whose world implodes on the night of her 50th birthday party as her mother reveals a hidden secret in front of all the guests.

Hurt and embarrassed, Lou and her sister Toni set off to Sicily on a journey of self-discovery, which will make her figure out how to stop pleasing everyone else and carve out who she really wants to be.

Themes of female empowerment and encouraging women to be their authentic selves appear in many of Cathy’s books.

“I’ve written about that a lot because many women don’t believe in themselves or stand up for themselves. Sadly there’s still a lot of misogyny in the world. I mean, just look at Andrew Tate.

“I wanted to write a novel that captures the moment when a woman decides to stop pleasing other people and decides that she comes first.

“Women so often don’t do that. We think we have to come last. In Sisterhood, I have a chance to dive into that theory with lovely, anxious Lou and with her high-achieving sister, Toni.”

Cathy particularly enjoyed writing the role of the feisty tv journalist and women in business mentor Toni.

“I secretly want to be like Toni. She takes no s*it and that’s very powerful because quite often as women we have to be careful what we say because we don’t want to antagonise people.

“I don’t do a lot on social media. There’s a lot of thoughts I wouldn’t post online in case I’m threatened with misogyny and I don’t know if I could cope with that.

“It was refreshing writing about someone who was saying this is who I am and do not be misogynistic towards me because you’re going to find that that doesn’t work.”

Cathy has slowly started her next novel, which draws upon her recent personal experience.

“I have a character in the book that has gone through cancer. It’s early days but I want it to be uplifting and funny. I tried as far as I could to keep humour alive when I was sick. It wasn’t easy, but humour gets you through a lot.”

Cathy Kelly standing in white shirt
In her novels Cathy Kelly tells stories about women’s lives (Barry McCall)

Looking ahead, Cathy is dreaming of a trip to Morocco with her partner PJ, and of course, planning on helping others.


She has been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF Ireland since 2005, and now wants to use her “voice and profile to do something in the cancer world”.

“I’m interested in raising funds for and making people consider cancer trials. Many think if you get involved in a cancer trial it’s a last resort – it’s not at all like that.”

Sisterhood by Cathy Kelly is published by HarperCollins and is out now.