Can you imagine one of the songs we’re singing is We Will Rock You,” Phil Flood laughs as she leafs through a carefully filed folder of sheet music in the sunroom of her family farmhouse at the foot of Sliabh na mBan.
Though Freddie Mercury might have had his work cut out keeping up with Phil, who is part of Something To Sing About, a choir that recently performed at the Aviva Stadium. With a whippet-quick sense of humour, the 64-year-old is a real livewire. But like her fellow choristers, she’s also a cancer survivor. Not that you’d know when they’re belting out Queen.
“We never think of cancer,” says Phil simply. “It’s all about the music.”
Phil lives just outside Clonmel, Co Tipperary, with her husband Tom, a retired agri contractor who still grows peas for Bachelors, as well as wheat. The couple married in 1972 (though she admits that even in primary school her pals used to tease her that the P and T on the Post & Telegraphs van stood for Phil and Tom.)
Together, they’ve battled “through thick and thin”, including the loss of their daughter Mairéad in 1977 when she was just two-years-old. They have three other children – John, Cathy and Bríd – and are proud grandparents, but tragedy stuck again when Phil’s sister, Lily, lost her battle with cancer in 2007.
However, it wasn’t the first time the illness touched her family. A second sister survived breast cancer in the early ’90s, while her two brothers have successfully come through prostate cancer.
“The oldest member of our family is the only one who hasn’t had cancer,” says Phil. “And then there’s me.”
She was reading in bed on a miserable June night in 2011 when she noticed a hard, pea-like lump in her breast. After visiting the GP the next morning, she was promptly referred to the Breast Care Unit at Waterford Regional Hospital.
“And to see the age groups there,” she recalls. “People older than me, young women and what I would see as young girls. I don’t know how their diagnosis turned out, but it was an extraordinary, surreal experience.”
An ultrasound soon confirmed that the lump was cancerous, but at less than 2cm, Phil was quietly confident that surgery on 26 July would work, especially as her lymph glands were clear. Indeed, a further biopsy proved that the cancer had not spread and she was advised that she would probably only need radiotherapy as a precautionary measure – which was why she was thrown when the oncologist mentioned the other C word.
“She said: ‘So Mrs Flood, when would you like to start your chemotherapy?’” she recalls. “And I said: ‘But I was told...’ And she said: ‘Mrs Flood, how long would you like to live?’
“There’s only one answer – forever!”
Songs of praise
Chemo took its own toll on Phil, especially the exhaustion.
“If God or the Pope came to the door, I’d still have to go to bed,” she recalls, though having her treatment in the oncology unit of South Tipperary General Hospital at least meant that long, arduous journeys were avoided.
Radiotherapy at the UPMC unit of the Whitfield Clinic in Waterford followed in January 2012, though Phil was fortunate to avail of the free transport service provided by SERT (South Eastern Radiotherapy Trust). In fact, Tom now volunteers as a driver as a mark of gratitude for the service.
It was actually on the SERT bus that Phil first met Ruth Farrell, who told her about a new choir starting in Clonmel. Something To Sing About (STSA) was established in September 2012 by Dr Paul Donnellan, consultant oncologist at University College Hospital, Galway, as a choir for people in recovery from cancer, with centres nationwide (and, indeed, one even in Brisbane, Australia). With a Clonmel branch established in April 2013 under Suzanne Buttimer (who is now the lead musical director for the entire STSA chorale), Ruth wondered if Phil would be interested in joining.
“And I immediately said yes,” she recalls. “Suzanne is such an effervescent and encouraging director – we can refuse her nothing!”
The Clonmel choir currently has 15 members and rehearses every Monday evening at Hotel Minella. When approached about using a room for rehearsals, the hotel unhesitatingly offered one free of charge and they also provide light refreshments for the singers afterwards. Their repertoire is varied, but uplifting. Songs range from The Foundations’ Build Me Up Buttercup to Phil’s favourite, I Have A Dream by ABBA.
“I couldn’t explain the happy atmosphere,” she says of the rehearsals. “Monday evenings are sacrosanct. It is a joy to go in. It is a joy to sing.”
And while music, rather than cancer, is the focus, the fact that they are all survivors is very potent.
“It’s not a support group, but people have spoken about what it meant to them,” says Phil. “Their life changed as a consequence, and it’s good to have a platform where you can say this.”
Phil’s life has certainly changed as a result of her cancer battle, throwing herself at every choral challenge. In September, the Clonmel group joined other STSA choirs at the Irish Cancer Society’s annual conference at the Aviva. On 4 October, they will perform at St Mary’s Church in Irishtown, Clonmel, alongside 12 other choirs as part of a “Big Sing” event.
And Phil can belt out We Will Rock You with the best of them.
“I now feel I just have to go for it,” she smiles.