Frail and weak after completing three gruelling courses of chemotherapy for breast cancer, Anne Nolan was triumphant as she rang the bell at Blackpool Victoria Hospital to mark the end of her treatment.
‘Thank God, it’s over,’ she thought, as — two weeks ago — younger sister Linda proudly captured the moment on video as nurses clapped and cheered the eldest and longest serving member of the Nolans.
Her relief, however, was overshadowed by a deep sadness that the sisters weren’t celebrating by ringing that bell together.
‘Chemo was absolutely horrendous for me and I was so happy it finally was over, but at the same time I felt a terrible melancholy that Linda wasn’t ringing the bell with me,’ says Anne.
‘I started my chemo a week before Linda, so she still has one more round to go, but she said to me: “Anne, I will ring the bell, but we all know my cancer is never going away.”’
In her first in-depth interview since their shocking cancer diagnoses — within days of each other in April — Anne reveals the situation couldn’t be more heartbreaking for the devoted sisters.
Sisters Linda and Anne Nolan (pictured together after their hair loss due to cancer treatment) received news of their shock cancer diagnoses within days of each other
This Friday, Linda will ring the bell to mark the end of her chemotherapy, but her prognosis is tragically far bleaker than Anne’s.
For Anne, who successfully battled breast cancer 20 years ago, has been told by doctors the grade three tumour in her left breast is a new cancer and, therefore, curable.
Linda, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, has been told the secondary cancer found in her pelvis in 2017 has now spread to her liver and cannot be cured.
Anne is hoping for a full recovery after surgery at the end of this month, followed by radiotherapy and further drug therapy; Linda’s only hope of survival is to try and contain the cancer.
‘It’s desperately sad, but I can’t feel guilty because to feel guilt you have to have done something wrong, and although I’ve been told my prognosis is good, you can never tell with cancer,’ says Anne.
The sisters, who formed part of Irish pop group The Nolans, both underwent chemotherapy at Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital but Linda’s prognosis is tragically far bleaker than Anne’s
Seven years ago, their young sister Bernie tragically died from secondary breast cancer aged just 52, leaving behind distraught husband Steve and 15-year-old daughter Erin.
She passed away three years after a mastectomy. Anne says Bernie was so determined to beat cancer she fought it right to the bitter end.
‘My prognosis may be good, but Bernie was told hers was, too. None of us thought she would die.
‘Linda knows she can’t be cured, but her attitude is absolutely amazing. She doesn’t know if she has five years or 15, but she’s so positive and that’s why she’s going through chemo, to try and contain the cancer.’
Linda has spent the last few days in hospital being treated for what is believed to be non-Covid-related pneumonia, and Anne was distraught she couldn’t visit her because of Covid restrictions.
She is desperately hoping she’ll be allowed to cheer Linda on this Friday when she rings the bell to mark the end of chemotherapy.
For the past few months, Anne and Linda have cried together, gone through chemo side by side and lost their hair together. The recent image of them bravely posing bald together couldn’t have been more poignant.
When Anne suffered terribly from the side-effects of chemo, so severe she had to be hospitalised for 11 days, Linda insisted on sitting with her before her own sessions.
‘I don’t think I could have got through it without Linda,’ says Anne. ‘She refused to leave my side. I reacted so badly to the chemo and my anxiety levels were sky high.
‘We were in the middle of lockdown, weren’t allowed any other visitors, so we only had each other at a time when we were being warned that Covid could kill us.’
Anne underwent a mammogram yesterday, ahead of surgery, to find out how effective the chemo has been at shrinking the tumour.
‘At my last examination, the oncologist couldn’t find it and said if I’d come to him like this a few months ago he would have told me, “You don’t have breast cancer”,’ says Anne.
‘I don’t know if I will need a lumpectomy, as I did 20 years ago, or a mastectomy, but I’d be willing to have both breasts removed if it improved my chances of survival. I’ll follow the doctors’ advice.’
Linda has been told the cancer has now spread to her liver and cannot be cured. Anne is hoping for a full recovery after surgery at the end of this month. Pictured, the Nolans on the Les Dawson show
Anne says cancer has been so much more traumatic the second time around, with the loss of Bernie still so raw in their hearts.
‘I remember Linda breaking down in tears, crying to Bernie: “It should be me, not you. I have no children, I’m a widow, but you have a husband and daughter.’
‘And I told her: “No, Linda, don’t say that. If anyone, it should be me.” I’m the eldest, I’m divorced, my two daughters are grown up and I’ve had a fabulous life. The truth is, none of us can bear the thought of losing each other.’
Bernie was the powerhouse lead singer of the Nolans and the ‘life and soul’ of the family. Anne’s eyes shine with tears when she recalls how — just two weeks before their joint cancer diagnoses — the surviving Nolans sang their most iconic hit, I’m in the Mood for Dancing, in her memory — to mark its 40th anniversary.
The one-off performance on the cruise ship MSC Grandiosa was the first time Anne had sung with her sisters in public for 20 years.
‘Everything just fell back into place,’ she says. ‘We felt even closer than when we first performed the song 40 years ago.’
Afterwards, Anne, 69, Maureen, 66, Linda, 61, and Coleen, 55, who sang lead vocals, joyfully toasted each other with champagne, and tearfully paid tribute to Bernie.
‘What happened to Linda and I was all just so fast. That was the most traumatic part,’ says Anne.
The devastating news comes seven years after Linda and Anne lost their sister Bernie ( second from right) to cancer in 2013. Bernie was the powerhouse lead singer of the Nolans and the ‘life and soul’ of the family
‘One minute, we were feeling fit, having fun on a cruise and then singing, all chatting and jolly, and then two weeks later both of us were being told we had cancer in the middle of lockdown. Then, a few weeks after that, Linda and I were having chemo together, feeling desperately ill, with our hair falling out in clumps. We’re still in shock, trying to process it all.’
Adjusting a colourful scarf to cover her bald head, Anne — whose weight dropped from almost 10 st to just 8 st during treatment — says losing her famously glossy, raven hair is a small price to pay.
‘My five-year-old granddaughter said to me the other day: “I like you better with hair, Granny, but I still love you just the same.” And that’s all that really matters,’ says Anne, who suffered crippling anxiety being separated during lockdown from daughters Amy, 39, and Alex, 32, and her three grandchildren aged ten, eight and five.
‘When it started to fall out, I asked Maureen to shave it all off and I just felt so much better because it was so upsetting waking up in the morning with it all over the pillow.
‘I’ve never been particularly vain, and while I hope my hair grows back, it doesn’t bother me being bald.’
Anne still manages to carry off her new look with elegance, glamour, and showbiz pizzazz.
Anne suffered terribly from the side-effects of chemo, so severe she had to be hospitalised for 11 days, Linda insisted on sitting with her before her own sessions. Pictured: Maureen, Bernie, Linda and Coleen Nolan as The Nolan Sisters in 1980
Blackpool’s answer to the Von Trapps, the Nolan sisters started their career singing with their Irish parents in working men’s clubs.
Talent-spotted in the 1970s, their harmonies, girl next-door look, skin-tight Lycra and catchy songs turned them into overnight stars.
A staple of Saturday night TV, they were invited to open for Frank Sinatra’s European tour, sang to sold-out audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and sold 30 million records.
Over the years, they’ve supported each other through divorce, bereavement and lean times.
Despite their huge chart success, they’ve all ended up skint at one time or another, let down by certain managers. They even survived Anne’s shocking revelation that their alcoholic father Tommy Nolan, who died in 1998, sexually abused her as a child, and the sisters supported her decision to write about it in her 2012 autobiography Anne’s Song.
Their motto has always been ‘Family First, Singing Second’ and today, Anne now deeply regrets losing sight of that 11 years ago when a row divided the family.
Dropped from the Nolans’ 2009 Reunion tour I’m In The Mood Again’ — after organisers wanted the four younger Nolans to go on the road instead of all five — Anne was so upset she accused her sisters of ‘stabbing me in the back’.
Anne wouldn’t speak to the others for years, and though they eventually made up and were fully reconciled before Bernie’s death, it still rankled.
Before their two-week cruise six months ago, Anne was planning to rake over their three-year rift in the sequel to her autobiography. Cancer, however, has now put everything into sharp perspective. Laying the past to rest, she now intends to erase the painful episode entirely.
‘I don’t want anything to spoil what we now have,’ says Anne, single since her divorce from ex-footballer Brian Wilson in 2007.
‘It was silly, really; stupid to let something like that come between us. We all feel that way now, and, to be honest, I was the instigator in it all falling apart.
‘My sisters were fine, they were all doing the tour, but I wasn’t with them, so I was not fine. I was so upset and hurt that they went ahead without me,’ says Anne. ‘I still don’t know the exact reasons why I was dropped, but I was told the organisers only wanted the four Nolans who’d sung on the greatest hits album and that they couldn’t afford to send five of us on tour.
‘None of that washed with me at the time and, to be frank, still doesn’t. I was the Nolans’ longest-serving member.’
Anne says the estrangement was ‘massively painful’. At family parties, Linda, Bernie, Maureen and Coleen would sit at one table, while Anne sat at another with sister Denise, both sides ignoring each other. Denise, 68, who’d left the Nolans as a young woman to pursue a solo career, sided with Anne. But the longer the rift went on, the more unhappy they all became.
‘I was so fed up not speaking to my sisters. I love them and wanted to get back with them. So Denise and I wrote them a letter.’
Since that breakthrough, the surviving sisters have never been closer. At Linda’s 60th birthday, they brought the house down with their rendition of the Barbra Streisand classic The Way We Were.
Blackpool’s answer to the Von Trapps, the Nolan sisters started their career singing with their Irish parents in working men’s clubs. Pictured: Coleen, Bernie, Linda and Maureen Nolan of The Nolans perform at the Apollo in Manchester on October 13, 2009
But their public performance in March, marking 40 years since the release of I’m In The Mood For Dancing, took their reconnection to a new level.
‘All the old wounds completely healed,’ smiles Anne. ‘I felt my sisters had made it up to me.’
Today, family really does come first. Maureen, divorced with one adult son and three grandchildren, has moved into the Blackpool home Anne shares with aunt, Teresa McBride, 86, to nurse her back to health.
Linda, who was widowed in 2007 and has no children, has moved in with Denise and her partner of 45 years. Twice divorced mum of three, Coleen — these days better known as one of ITV’s Loose Women — visits often from her home in Cheshire.
Doctors have told the Nolans their cancers are the result of a rogue gene, and with so many women in the family, they inevitably worry who might be next.
Anne says: ‘I’ve told my two daughters: “You can get tested, but then you have to make a decision about whether to have a mastectomy, or you can decide not to and hope for the best.’
‘They’ve both decided not to have the test because they don’t want to spend their lives thinking, “Oh my God, I have the gene and I’m going to get cancer” when it might never happen.’
As for her sisters, Anne is convinced they’ll all still be around for many years to come.
‘I just feel incredibly lucky to have my sisters around me. I’d never have got through this without them all and I’m never letting anything come between us again.’