Amelia McFarland recently made her Energia All-Ireland League debut for Blackrock College, almost a year since she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a significant and inspirational milestone in what has been a rollercoaster twelve months for her.
The well-travelled McFarland has packed a lot into her 33 years so far. Born in London, she grew up with her family in Moscow before moving at the age of 10 to Ireland, where both sets of grandparents lived, in Donegal and Meath respectively.
She now lives in Carrigans, Co. Donegal, where she has turned the family’s ancestral home, Dunmore House & Gardens, into a beautiful venue for weddings and corporate events.
She has always had a keen interest in sport, especially horse riding. She competed in the National Dressage Championships just over a week ago. She is also a rugby player, playing with City of Derry last season, and she credits the sport for helping her cope during her difficult cancer battle.
“There is more and more research coming out saying the more exercise you do while going through aggressive chemotherapy the better you are at the other end, and the better you come around from it,” she told IrishRugby.ie.
“Chemo is such a mental journey. I gave it my best shot. I said to myself, I’m going to come out of this. I would have chemo on a Tuesday and rugby training on the Wednesday.
“I said to myself, I know I’m going to feel absolutely terrible, but I just wanted to get to training. Just being there was a mental win for me at the time.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, both here in Ireland and around the world. It is an illness that affects one in every nine women, that is two players from a women’s rugby matchday squad.
McFarland went to the doctor after she found a lump in her breast. At the time the doctor was not overly concerned, but it was when she went for a biopsy that her cancer diagnosis was confirmed.
She had six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, as well as radiotherapy. The chemo is said to be the toughest of all these stages, it leads to your hair and nails falling out. McFarland can remember the moment she started losing her hair.
“I wouldn’t be one of these people that would be focused on my looks, but the first time I start losing my hair was actually on the rugby pitch.
“I just scored a try, and you know when you brush your hands through your hair, a clump of my hair was in my hand,” recalled the courageous cancer awareness advocate.
She drew comfort from the fact that it happened on the rugby pitch, surrounded by the support of her team-mates.
If I was sitting on the couch at home when that happened, I think the feeling would have been so much worse. Being on that rugby pitch, being around strong women, it kind of carried me through.”
McFarland is thankfully over the worst off the illness now, but still undergoes ‘mini chemo’ once a month while also having to take medication for the next couple of years. She urges people to get checked if they are any way concerned.
“If you’re worried get checked, go to the doctor. The earlier they find it, the better the prognosis,” she explained.
A summer wedding co-ordinator by trade, the strong-running winger is currently studying psychology at Dublin Business School. She moved to All-Ireland League champions Blackrock to play her rugby this season, and is thoroughly enjoying the new challenge.
“I was saying to somebody the other day it was almost a year to the day since I got my cancer diagnosis when I made my Blackrock debut.
“The team around me is so good, the likes of Hannah O’Connor, Beth Cregan, and many other provincial players.
“If you would have told me just six months ago that I’d be lining out for Blackrock in the AIL, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
The love of the sport runs deep in the McFarland family. Amelia’s younger brother, Max, is an Olympian having represented the Great Britain Sevens team at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo where they placed just outside the medals in fourth.
The former Clontarf flyer plays for the Scotland Sevens team. It was a great honour for the whole family when he was in Tokyo, and Amelia says Max is ‘one of the main reasons I got into rugby’.
“When he went to Tokyo, our internet went down, and where we live the signal is woeful but we managed to get it on one of the laptops.
“It was like being back in the 90s! We were all huddled around this one screen, screaming at the top of our voices,” laughed the proud sibling.
She is targeting her own rugby success this season with Blackrock, who began their title defence with a hard-fought 22-17 home win over Old Belvedere. She is hoping she can earn some silverware with her new club.
“I am a very competitive person. I want to play as many games as I can, and if I could win some silverware that would by phenomenal,” she added.
Breast Cancer Awareness is an effort to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of breast cancer through education about screening, symptoms, and treatment. Visit Breast Cancer Ireland and the Irish Cancer Society for more information on breast cancer supports and ways to donate or fundraise.