Actress Melanie Clark Pullen tells of her 'brutal' cancer journey after medic role in Liam Neeson film
In her most recent role, as a doctor in Ordinary Love with Liam Neeson, Melanie Clark Pullen had to tell the central character that she had breast cancer – just days after receiving the diagnosis herself
ACTRESS and writer Melanie Clark Pullen was already cocooning in the comfort of her Bangor home after a double mastectomy when lockdown interrupted her tranquil recovery.
The Wicklow-born mum-of-three, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2019, had decided, along with husband Simon, that their three children, aged 12, nine and six, should go and stay with their paternal grandfather while she recuperated from the surgery.
But just as Melanie was beginning to settle into the period of rest and recovery, the coronavirus outbreak struck and the family were forced to change their plans. The children were taken out of school and returned home to their parents, accompanied by their grand-father. Getting used to a full and noisy house again hasn't been without its hiccups, says Melanie, who also had to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed as well as reconstructive surgery.
“I got the all clear; I'm cancer free, which is great, so now it's all about recovery,” says the actress, who previously starred in EastEnders as Mary Flaherty, Pauline Fowler's Irish cousin.
“Having just gone through surgery though, my immune system was compromised so we took the decision to take the kids out of school, even before lockdown started.
"To be honest, I feel like I'm in the twilight zone. I'm not the person I was but I'm much better than I was three months ago. Since lockdown happened, I've gone from the cosy cocoon of stillness to a busy, full house and that's been pretty challenging. It's been a fairly traumatic time since last January, with one thing after another. As one of my friends commented, I had my own pandemic last year.”
Melanie's cancer journey began on St Stephen's Day 2018, after finding a lump on her breast. A fit and healthy person who enjoyed sea swimming, yoga and long walks, she tried not to be too concerned. But a few weeks later, after undergoing a series of tests at the Ulster Hospital, Melanie was given the news she'd been dreading; she had breast cancer.
Her thoughts initially turned to her husband. He had watched his mother lose her battle with breast cancer and she feared for him, having to go through it all again. But then there were practicalities to discuss such as surgery and treatment plans and she was determined that she was going to beat it.
Melanie's acting career had been on the back-burner for a while but in the summer of 2018 she landed a role playing a doctor in the movie Ordinary Love. Starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville, the film centres on a woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer and explores what happens when this illness is introduced into ordinary life.
In a strange parallel, Melanie found herself telling Manville's character that she had breast cancer just days after receiving the diagnosis herself.
“I'd already filmed the scenes but I still had to do the diagnosis as a voice-over,” she recalls. “It was so surreal to be sitting in a sound booth, telling this woman she had breast cancer and talking about chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“It could've been the same conversation I'd had with the doctors just a few days beforehand. I think I was still probably in shock when I did that but I was able to go straight into performance mode.
“I went to the Belfast premiere of the film and thought it was stunning; truly beautiful. One of the moments that really resonated with me is when Lesley Manville's character was having her biopsy done and they showed a close-up of her face. I found that very moving.”
It was during her chemotherapy sessions that Melanie was tested for and found to be a carrier of the BRCA 2 mutant gene, which dramatically increases the chance of breast and ovarian cancer. Melanie was advised to have a double mastectomy, her ovaries and tubes removed and reconstructive surgery. But before the surgery could take place, she had to undergo five sessions of radiotherapy.
“I had to develop a dark sense of humour to get me through,” she says. “But there's absolutely nothing funny about standing in front of a strange man, stripped from the waist up, as he weighs up your boobs. It was utterly absurd.”
It was also during this time that Melanie was pointed in the direction of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland. Her husband Simon had gone for counselling sessions with the charity following her diagnosis and had found the support beneficial. Melanie, a keen writer who has published a novel and blog, never considered herself to be particularly artistic but decided to give art therapy and art journaling a go. And she was amazed with the results.
“I couldn't write at all when I was going through chemotherapy,” Melanie says. “I just couldn't find the words. All my family on my mum's side are artistic but I never thought I could paint. It turned out that it was the only way I could express myself though; through drawing and painting.
“I’ve gone from trying to make something really nice to playing with shapes and lines and not criticising myself. The painting and drawing gave me a way of dealing with the pain and just experiencing some of what was going on.
“And Joanne Boal, the art therapist, is the most incredible, compassionate, sympathetic person you could ever wish to meet. I started to allow myself space to play and even if nothing comes of it, those art sessions certainly helped me.
“The whole cancer experience isn’t something I can explain in words. It is much deeper. It is happening in your body. This helps you express that. You don't have to find the words; I still find it hard to describe what has happened to me. It's been brutal, horrific. I'm forever changed. But through art journaling and art therapy, I've been able to get out those feelings without having to explain them. And that's really helped.”
Now Melanie, who also runs her own coaching business Strut and Bellow, is backing Cancer Focus NI as it launches an emergency appeal for funds to save its vital services.
The charity is desperately worried that it will not survive the coronavirus crisis and is appealing to everyone to make a donation to help keep its doors open.
Each year Cancer Focus NI supports 6,000 cancer patients, their families and carers across the north. The local charity is 90 per cent dependent on fundraising but has had to cancel all its fundraising events and close its charity shops. As a result, it’s facing an 80 per cent loss of income over the next six months.
Roisin Foster, chief executive, Cancer Focus NI, said: “Our hearts go out to people who are trying to cope with the anxiety of coronavirus on top of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the impact of treatment.
“Covid-19 is making life so much more difficult for them – treatments have been delayed, and clinics cancelled. Not to mention the anxiety, stress and loneliness that patients and their families might feel right now.
“With cancer screening suspended and GP referrals for suspected cancer down 76 per cent, we know there will be a wave of patients facing late diagnosis and more complex treatment.
“We desperately want to be able to support people facing cancer both now and in the future but, unfortunately, we are facing a crisis unlike any other we have ever known in our 50-year history.”
You can donate directly to cancerfocusni.org/appeal or via text donation by texting FOCUS to 70660 to donate £5. For further information on Melanie's coaching business, visit strutandbellow.com