Trina Cleary is getting married this year. Whether six people can go to the service or 60, its happening, she says emphatically. The 36-year-old from Co Wexford has that lovely bubbly-ness of a bride-to-be. She sighs wistfully at the memory of the dress she tried on in a bridal shop before Christmas, but had to say goodbye to because she couldnt quite justify its 1,600 price tag. Then in the next breath, she enthuses happily about managing to source one thats quite similar to the other one but a quarter of the price.
Like so many interactions these days, our conversation takes place over the phone but I can hear her smile when she talks about her husband-to-be, Stuuy Lawlor, who she reconnected with last year after, what she coyly refers to as history from about 10 years ago. She chuckles remembering that she stood him up three times, only to finally agree to a date, which she belatedly realised was, in fact, Valentines night.
I nearly backed out again, she laughs. But we went to a hotel, where he had a cup of tea. I had a cup of green tea and we ended up sitting there for three hours, just laughing like I havent laughed in a long time. Weve been inseparable ever since.
The hotel where they had thatfirst date has now been booked for the wedding, and almost all the normal wedding preparations are sorted. But there is one conversation that Trina wants to have with their celebrant that would not be on the radar for most brides.
I want to ask the lady who is doing our wedding to do my funeral as well, says Trina. Its going to be a tough conversation to have, but I want someone to have my wishes so it takes pressure off everyone and lets them grieve, look after themselves and each other, and celebrate my life instead of worrying about having to plan the perfect day for me.
Its a pretty remarkable statement to make, but Trina Cleary is a pretty remarkable woman. You might already be familiar with at least part of her story, particularly if youre one of her 16k followers on Instagram (@tri_cleary) or an avid reader of her blog, A Day In The Life Of Tri.
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“If youve one boob, no boobs or two, youre still beautiful. Youre still you. Cancer sufferer Trina Cleary photographed by Nikki Stix.
“If youve one boob, no boobs or two, youre still beautiful. Youre still you. Cancer sufferer Trina Cleary photographed by Nikki Stix.
In March 2018, then aged 33, the mum-of-one found a lump in her breast. She tried to dismiss it but a visit to her GP in August of that year led to a referral and then, in October 2018, diagnosis.
The language around cancerdiagnosis can be strange. The C-word is often avoided altogether in favour of other words on tumour size, clusters of cells, stages, growth. Trina remembers being grateful she was told straight.
She reveals: The first time, my very first scan, I said to the radiologist, Why did you want to take a biopsy? Did you see something? And she said to me, Ask me the question you want to ask me. My mam and I said at exactly the same time: Is it cancer? and she said, Yes.
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I was always really grateful for that, that rather than waiting for two weeks for results to come back, she was able to tell me: Yes. It is cancer.
A mind-boggling litany of treatments followed, including eight rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiotherapy, a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. It was gruelling. The third to last round of chemo nearly ended me, says Trina honestly. It broke me physically and emotionally and I remember telling them I didnt want to do it any more. But she carried on and completed her final course in March 2018.
By October 2019, she was declared cancer-free. She was a cancer survivor. That should have been the end of the story.
But in April of last year, just a few months into her new relationship, and, like the rest of the world, coming to terms with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, Trina received devastating news.
It was a pain in her neck that triggered a series of events. I thought Id a crick in my neck from doing handstands in a fitness class I was in, recalls Trina. My GP didnt think anything of it and I didnt think anything of it, but my oncologist said: No, lets get you scanned.
This didnt raise any alarm bells. Hes so good, hed almost get me scanned if I said my fingernail hurt, smiles Trina. Normally a text comes after the scan telling her all is clear but this time there was a phone call and a request to come in.
I knew, says Trina. A CT scan and 24 hours later, she was diagnosed with stage-four cancer and told she had years to live.
It was, she says, devastating. But strangely not entirely surprising. I always knew there was something not right, she explains. Even when they told me I was cancer-free I was celebrating, of course but I felt like a fraud for celebrating because it just didnt sit right with me.
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Cancer sufferer Trina Cleary is encouraging everyone to support the Irish Cancer society’s Daffodil day. Photograph by Nikki Stix
Cancer sufferer Trina Cleary is encouraging everyone to support the Irish Cancer society’s Daffodil day. Photograph by Nikki Stix
Shes incredibly close to herfamily and pays tribute to their support multiple times in our conversation. In her blog, she writes movingly about the pain of telling her dad that the cancer was back, and her guilt at making the former army man, who rarely shed a tear, cry for his sick daughter.
Then there was the pain of breaking the news to her son, Corey (13). Hes been just amazing, she says simply, Weve been really honest and upfront with him. He knows my cancer is never going to go away.
Life now is lived in three-month blocks, from scan to scan, and quarter-yearly bone injections. Zoladex, Palbociclib, Letrozole… Trina reels off drugs like a pharmacologist. Her cancer is hormone-driven and the injection of Zoladex every 28 days shuts down her ovaries, something that has plunged her into a medical menopause for the past year. It becomes a way of life, she says. Im doing what I need to do to survive.
There is, she admits, a particular cruelty to receiving a terminal diagnosis at a time when normal life has been indefinitely suspended. I literally feel like Im on pause because when I got sick, it was around the timelockdown happened, she explains. I feel like Im being robbed of time, which I know everyone probably feels right now, but when you know you dont have as many years left as you might have hoped, and now theres a year of it gone, it is hard. There are some days I get very upset about it because its time Im never going to get back, memories that Im not making with my family and friends.
A life list has been created. Not abucket list Trina would rather focus on things to do while shes still alive and kicking than create a schedule that places death front and centre. Shes ticked some off climbing Mount Leinster for a second time (just six months after hip surgery. The first time was not long after radiotherapy) and she got to meet her favourite band, Picture This.
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Cancer sufferer Trina Cleary photographed by Nikki Stix. Trina wears a headpiece by Deb Fanning Millinery, debfanning.com
Cancer sufferer Trina Cleary photographed by Nikki Stix. Trina wears a headpiece by Deb Fanning Millinery, debfanning.com
Theres something incredibly heart-warming about the fact that most of the goals arent things like swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas or bungee jumping in New Zealand, but rather trips around Ireland shed love to do with her friends and family: go to Electric Picnic, go glamping, visit the Giants Causeway and take the Game of Thrones Tour.
I just want to make memories with my friends and family, thats all Im thinking. I dont want them to think of me as being sick. I want them to look back and go, Do you remember the time when we did that? And how much fun it was? Thats how I want my next few years to be. Im chomping at the bit to just start living.
Her other concerns around the effects of lockdown revolve around other people. She worries that fundraising initiatives like the Irish Cancer Societys annual Daffodil Day will fall off peoples radar at a time when donations are most needed. And she worries that people with potential health issues could slip through the cracks.
When Trinas lump was first detected it was about the size of a pea but, by the time of her first scan, six months later, it had already grown to 3.5cm. Nor did she tick any of the warning boxes.
I was 33 when I found my lump, in the gym five or six days a week, didnt smoke, didnt drink more than recommended, watched my diet and had no family history, so I would have been deemed quite low on the list going by those criteria.
She knows first-hand how critical early detection is and it worries her to hear from women online that they are not being seen for 12 months because they dont tick enough of those warning boxes, or that some GPs are reportedly asking for photographs of concerning lumps rather than scheduling a face-to-face breast exam.
People have come back to me and said, Im listening to what you say about early detection being key but the doctor is not listening to me and Covid-19 has taken over. What I say to them is: You have to keep pushing, you have to dig deep and find your own voice because the buck doesnt stop with your doctor, you can keep pushing and demand to be seen.
Its not the doctors who are atfault, nor the healthcare teams at the other end, she stresses. I cant fault the care Ive had. Its been second to none. But theres a link missing between getting into the system and the care once you get in, and that needs to be looked at not just in breast cancer but for so many health issues there is an issue with getting into the system.
Messages come back to her from women whove listened to her and are now in the system. Some have had their cancer caught at stage one or two. Some of them have said: Because of you, Ive been diagnosed.
When you hear things like this, its hard not to want to shower Trina in a glut of glowing descriptors such as inspirational, empowering, brave, fighter. But theres been enough debate around the benefits of framing cancer patients in this way to make me wonder if shes happy up on a pedestal.
Fighter, she muses. Fighter doesnt cause me any offence because, before I got sick, I was a kickboxer for six years, so I was an actual fighter, so personally I dont mind if people say Im a fighter, because I am.
There is no right way to talk about cancer, she explains. Fighter doesnt bother her but she knows others who would say theyre not fighting, just doing what they have to do. Theres no magic combination of words you can say to make someone whohas just been diagnosed feel better, all you can do is let them know youre there.
Shes not been perfect in her reaction. The smile isnt always there. Not every day can be lived at 100mph. She still has to nag her teenage son to clean his room. Normal life continues and its right that it does. You cant be fake just because youre sick, she says, matter of factly. Some days shes blindsided by the recollection of life before and opening Facebook memories can be like a game of Russian roulette. It can be quite triggering when I see pictures of me with long hair, she explains. Or when I look back on memories of concerts and stuff like that where Im smiling and I know that there are no worries behind that smile. I miss her.
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Trina Cleary has a ‘life list’ rather than a bucket list. Photograph by Nikki Stix
Trina Cleary has a ‘life list’ rather than a bucket list. Photograph by Nikki Stix
Does she ever think, Why me? Of course, she replies. There are days when Im on my knees asking, why me? But then I think, why not me? Why would it be anyone else and not me?
She comes back to the word brave that I brought up earlier. I just dont see it as being brave, she explains. I dont have any other choice but to do what Im doing. You cant just lie down and take it you have to keep going.
I contend that not everyone would put their experience out on a public platform like Instagram or, indeed, in magazine photoshoots like today in the hope that it will help others. Yeah, ok, she says laughing a little. Maybe that is a bit brave.
Her biggest will I, wont I moment on that front was deciding to post photos of herself with her mastectomy scar visible. I thought, Oh god, am I going to upset people if I do this? Am I going to get reported [for violating the social-media platforms guidelines]? But people loved it!
Well, most people. There was one guy who tried to say I was faking my mastectomy, she reveals. Some pictures I take are in a mirror and some are on a selfie camera, so it flips the image, and this man decided I was faking it!
I was fuming, she adds. I was like, Get off here you weirdo and leave me alone!
Happily, it was an isolatedincident and she rightly has zero regrets about sharing the pictures. I just wanted to show people that you dont have to go through that next surgery and get reconstruction to feel complete again, she explains. For me, it was a no-brainer. I was never putting my body through another surgery if I didnt have to. I really wanted to show, through my own mastectomy, that I love my scar and, if youve one boob, no boobs or two, youre still beautiful. Youre still you.
Shes proud of her scar. Proud of climbing her mountains and looking for the positives. As bad as cancer is, it has changed me as a person for the better, she says. I think Im more thoughtful of others, more sympathetic and empathetic towards others.
But, I think, most of all, Im just really proud of how Im handling myself, being so positive and helping other people, she continues. For me, thats a really proud moment and I hope that its a legacy that I leave behind. That people after Im gone will go: Remember Trina? Her campaigns and everything she did? And I hope someone else will carry it on and make themselves proud too.
Perhaps sensing that Im about to call her brave again, she laughs. Not that Im going anywhere just yet. Id be too afraid Id miss something! 
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