HEALTH MATTERS: Q&A with Frances Cahill
22nd April 2015
Frances Cahill wears many hats – a busy Director of Business Development by day and a single mother of two, 24/7. She was Chairperson of Fine Gael Women’s Group from 2008 to 2012 and during the same period was a member of its National Executive Council.
A finalist in both Shell Livewire Young Entrepreneur and BPW Awards, she also has a keen interest in sports, especially Gaelic football and hurling – when she can find the time.
Frances takes a proactive approach to her health and through her interview with WMB, advises others to do likewise. Her mother died of breast cancer when Frances was just six years old leaving a distraught husband and four children to fend for themselves.
Q: Your own story is quite unique. Tell me how you came to the difficult decision of undergoing a preventative double mastectomy and subsequently a full hysterectomy – the youngest women in Ireland to do so?
A: My own mum died when I was just gone six, that was the day my family fell apart. We were never the same again. My mum missed all the milestones of her kids’ lives – graduations, births, weddings, professional achievements. When I was faced with the health dilemma I knew I didn’t want my two daughters to face the world alone. At the time, genetic testing for cancer was not readily available or affordable. However, I had recently separated from my husband and it was more important now than ever for me to take control as I was on my own and we were [my children and me] a team.
I was confident and comfortable in whom I was to know that physical appearance wasn’t the ‘be all and end all’. I have two amazing kids and I had no intentions of having any more so I asked for the full process of mastectomy and hysterectomy.
Q: Angelina Jolie is quoted as saying: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger’. Does this resonate with you?
A: Absolutely. I have this amazing new lease of life. I will go out and do whatever I want and achieve my dreams. But it wasn’t always the case. To this day I still remember screaming, crying at what I had done to my body. I felt I wasn’t a woman any longer and no one would ever be attracted to me. I was so distraught. But I still carried on with work as the cheerful happy Frances everyone thought I was.
Over time I accepted the change and said ‘to hell with it’, I’m going to be proud of my scars and my body. I’m intelligent and smart with a stupid sense of humour – if people can’t see that then I don’t need them in my life. So yes, it does make you stronger. You find this strength to protect yourself and realise you are a lot stronger than you ever thought.
Q: Why did you decide to publicise your story in a recent interview on RTE?
A: A lot of my peers listen to radio – I wanted them to realise that they need to address their health and not ignore any signs that present themselves. I hope that my story might resonate with women to stand back and think. They need to look after their health first and foremost as nothing will be right if you are not right.
Q: Do you believe women should work less or just work smarter?
A: The working less option isn’t really available to women today. It’s work harder or work smarter! We always need to be one step ahead, multi-task, look at the bigger picture… We have learnt to create a whole new persona in our professional life that sometimes is totally different to the real person and it can be hard to separate fact from fiction!
Q: Are women working themselves into an early grave?
A: We have a great way of putting everyone and everything in front of our own needs and that includes our health. During the boom, women were more content and less stressed for obvious reasons. The recession hit and the trade that the majority of men worked in disappeared overnight. So the gauntlet fell to the women in Ireland to step up and form cottage based industries and become the new generation of entrepreneurs, managers, and leaders in the business world. We have had to work so much harder and longer and it’s concerning that we are really trying to keep all the plates in the air.
Q: Do you think it’s a man’s world when it comes to business?
A: Overall it’s a man’s world for many reasons. However, the main one is we are still in the process of diluting the generation that encouraged women to stay at home in a world where men go out to work. When the next generation breaks into the workforce, gender equality will be a given – not a gesture of goodwill or a forced process.
Q: What changes would you like to see in the role women play in Ireland?
A: Women are designed with certain traits that make us who we are. If we were to view a company like our family, I guarantee things would run more smoothly.
A woman will motivate staff like she would her children, to achieve better results; she will show compassion to her colleagues and empathy if required; she will scold them if they mess up and don’t deliver; she will manage on a tight budget and always look at the bigger picture. Women have mastered the art of multi-tasking and this is a resource much needed within organisations today.
Q: You were a member of the Fine Gael National Executive and Chairperson of Fine Gael Women’s Group. Can you elaborate?
A: My mother had a huge interest in politics. One of my very few and earliest memories was her making rosettes for Fine Gael back in early 80s. She had us all in an assembly line making them. So getting involved with the Women’s Group as chairperson was a huge honour for me and being appointed to the National Executive was also amazing – I genuinely thought I could make a difference. Unfortunately circumstances prevailed and I believe it’s true when they say, ‘never meet your hero’, you will only be disappointed!
In terms of politics, during my period with Fine Gael, I really struggled to attend meetings due to child minding and work issues. I really wanted to be involved in the functions of Fine Gael but the politics of the party were a hindrance. I wish I could say that this arena is changing but if I was to take a guess, I would say that politics is at least 20 years behind the business world in terms of gender equality.
Q: What changes would you like to see in the role women play in a social context?
A: The hardest thing as a working mum is the segregation from the mums who stay at home. The mums who are able to drop off their kids, collect them, have dinner on the table and drop them to dancing all before 6pm while I’m only collecting them at 6pm to begin that process of homework and dinner. We feel guilty that we’re not at home, we feel guilty that our kids are not part of ‘the clique’ because their mums are away working.
This is why women are their own worst enemies. We compete in business with mainly men to prove ourselves. Then in our social and personal life we compete with other women. The choice to work outside the home is driven by many factors and each, individual. The luxury to stay at home can’t be afforded to every woman and no woman should be made to feel guilty for her choice.
Q: Who inspires you? Who is your role model?
In terms of an inspiration I would have to say my father. Here is a man who lost his wife after 16 years of marriage to breast cancer with four kids to look after. He had just started a brand new business and was trying to balance it all.
Regarding a role model, I would love to say it was my mother! But all my knowledge of her is someone else’s opinions and memories. My peers in the business world are a huge inspiration – it’s a tough world out there to balance work and family. So hats off to every woman that can have a career and a family.
Q: Do you embrace life/your career?
A: At present my life is my career, for the moment anyway. I am enjoying being single. I haven’t time for a relationship as being a mum is also a priority so balancing the two is key!
I will admit one thing – when you have the threat of cancer removed it’s like a Pandora’s box has been opened. You suddenly fear nothing and aim as high as you can for anything. If I want to do something I will try and do it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I move on to another plan. It’s like the walls have been removed and the world is my oyster!!