THEO PANAYIDES meets a politician who is full of self-belief and quiet persistence who has contributed much to cancer care on the island, not least because she has battled it three times herself
Does experience make the person, or the person make the experience? Is it true to say that Stella Kyriakidou has been dealt quite a tough hand by life, or is her experience – as she staunchly insists – nothing unusual, and no worse than others’? Stella is admittedly a high achiever – not just an MP (with Disy) since 2006 and chair of the House human rights committee but also, among other things, president of Europa Donna Cyprus from 2000 to 2015, recipient of various ‘Woman of the Year’ awards, and, since a couple of weeks ago, the first Cypriot president of PACE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Yes – but she’s also a three-time cancer survivor, having lived with the disease (in one form or another) since she was a child.
“My journey began in 1968, when breast cancer first came into our lives.” That’s from a Facebook post she wrote on October 1, to mark the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (The post has been liked by some 2,300 people, and shared 387 times.) “The truth,” she goes on, “is that my acquaintance with this disease began very early, at the dawn of my teenage years, when my mother was diagnosed at the age of 38. Those 10 years of her journey, before she passed away at 48, were also crucial for me, and my own journey with cancer.” Stella goes on to recount how she herself was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, just before her 40th birthday (she’s now 61), and how her initial feelings of denial upon discovering the tell-tale lump – “that I’d wake up in the morning and it would be gone” – were muddied by some “small inner voice” which claimed to have known it was coming. “I expected it,” she writes. It had happened to her mum, so she knew it would happen to her.
Actually, she was wrong about that: only seven to eight per cent of breast cancers are genetic or hereditary. Still, the fact that she found herself within that minority – or, alternatively, that her own diagnosis was just a tragic coincidence – doesn’t make it any easier to bear, especially given that she fell ill again a few years later, and again (this time with a leg sarcoma) in 2013. Does she feel that she’s had bad luck, at the very least?
“No,” she replies after a short pause.
“I think it’s part of life. Nobody guaranteed us that life would be without hurdles and obstacles, and everybody has their own problems, their own difficulties to deal with. Mine have been these.”
Fine, I persist – but surely they’ve been rather more serious than the average?
“You know,” she muses, “they say sometimes that if you put everybody’s problems in a pile in front of you, everybody would choose to take back their own. I don’t know what’s going on in somebody else’s life, maybe their problems are much more difficult to deal with than my own. So I can’t say that. I really don’t think – I really –” she raises her voice, drowning me out as I try to protest, “I really don’t believe that. At all.”
I guess people just get used to their own lives, I offer, thinking of her analogy of the pile of problems and everyone choosing to stick with their own.
“No, I don’t think it’s like that,” says Stella. She pauses, as if looking to put this subject to rest once and for all. “You know, I really am like I am,” she says simply. “Because I think you’re trying to guide it in a way that – I should be feeling sorry for myself, or I should be feeling angry, or I’m used to my own life. It’s not like that.
“I’m very aware of my situation. I know to live with my disease, and I get on with my life and I’m generally a very positive person. And it’s as simple as that. I don’t blame anyone else, I don’t feel that I have more on my plate than I should have, and I think that a lot of people have a lot worse to deal with in their lives. So in that sense I’m very lucky, in many ways. And this is who I am. Maybe it’s not what people expect, but this is who I am.”
Translation: experience doesn’t make the person – the person makes the experience, choosing to shape it through their own particular worldview. “It’s not something I do on purpose,” she admits later, apropos of her lifelong tendency to activism. “It’s something I just am.” It’s not like she treats cancer lightly: she’s had periods of depression, and her most recent bout was especially stressful – because sarcoma was something new and unfamiliar, because it required major surgery, and because it came after a year of wrong diagnoses including an unnecessary knee operation. Her weapons, however, include being determinedly open about the disease, being a scientific person in general, and being active (rather than passive) by nature. “Once I knew what I was faced with, I was very matter-of-fact,” she recalls of her first diagnosis in 1996. “I thought ‘OK, you don’t have many choices’. At the time I had two very young children. ‘You have one choice: you have to deal with this and get well. Because you have a family’.”
Her two sons are in their 30s now, the younger a consultant in London while the elder is in Spain, working as a lawyer and married to an Argentine. Stella and her husband Kikis also have two grandchildren – and she suddenly tells me of her grandson Philippos, who was born extremely premature and spent two and a half months in intensive care (she calls his survival a “miracle”). I wonder for a moment why she’s telling me this story – she’s not the type to volunteer much personal information – but this, it turns out, isn’t the end of the story: Philippos’ birth inspired her and others to form an association called ‘The Miracle Babies’ who are currently working “to fund and build a new unit for premature babies at Makarios hospital”, indeed they’ve already raised some €320,000. That’s the way Stella operates, taking her revenge on setbacks by seeking to turn them into something positive – just as she did with Europa Donna, the breast cancer ‘awareness movement’ whose Cyprus branch she was instrumental in founding not long after her own illness (she was also president of the European parent association for two years, 2004-06).
She’s a positive person, she affirms, a glass-half-full person – which is not to say that she’s bubbly or carefree. She seems steely, meticulous, thoroughly organised. “Let’s try and get it done by one o’clock,” she says of our interview (we meet in her office in Parliament, on a warm Friday morning) – and bang on time, without being prompted by her secretary, she suggests that we wrap things up. She comes off as a passionate technocrat, thoroughly enamoured of the EU – it’s “a wonderful benchmark for where we should be going” – and happier with science than abstract speculation. ‘What do you think happens after death?’ I ask, assuming that someone who’s come face-to-face with her own mortality is likely to have some thoughts on the subject. “I have no idea,” she replies flatly.
What would she say is her biggest character flaw? Once again, she demurs, turning to her colleague Panicos Pourgourides (who’s sitting in on the interview) for help. She’s a perfectionist, he admits wryly; sometimes she’ll end up putting others under pressure with her high standards – but she’s also sensitive, and will always turn around and reassure them when she sees they feel pressured. I sense a bit of that even in our own brief chat, the spiky side – refusing to give way on this or that point – closely followed by the sweet, mollifying, no-hard-feelings side. “She inspires people,” adds Panicos, and the secretary pipes up from her desk in agreement. “They exaggerate,” smiles Stella regally.
Is she pushy? “I’m determined. I’m determined, and I’m focused.” Her background is in psychology and child psychology. She worked at the Makarios hospital for 26 years, most of her adult life (she still has a touch of the doctor’s manner, cordial but detached), indeed “I was the first psychologist to go to the hospital, the first to work with children there”. When she started, “they didn’t think they needed a psychologist”. This was Cyprus in the 80s, a time before counselling and therapy; Stella was inevitably posted to the psychiatric hospital – but finally wangled a job working at Makarios for half an hour every week. She agreed to the hours, even though she’d be spending more time driving to the hospital than actually working there, “because I knew that, once the doctors found out what I could offer children, they would themselves ask for my time to be increased”. This, in a nutshell, seems to be her style: self-belief and quiet persistence, an iron hand in a velvet glove.
She gets things done; she always has. I ask if she misses the relative anonymity of her younger years – but in fact she was always a familiar face, even before politics and her own health problems placed her even more firmly in the public eye. These days, in addition to PACE, she works mostly on patients’ rights – a “very strong law” was passed a couple of years ago – women’s health and equality, the issue of child sexual abuse (which she knew about from her work in the hospital, at a time when no-one spoke of it publicly), human rights and of course their first cousin, animal rights. She also does a lot of volunteering, visiting families to offer cancer support and advice in general. Her work is a huge chunk of her life – “I’m not big on hobbies” – not just enacting laws but making sure they’re implemented, putting a note in her diary and chasing it up: “I’m very much the person who’ll go back to it in three months and say ‘Is it still working?’”. She’s the rare, annoying politician who doesn’t stop at the photo ops.
And the cancer? The disease that’s almost seemed to be stalking her for the past 50 years? “It’s part of your life,” she opines. “It doesn’t rule your life, but it’s part of your life.” How, I inevitably ask, has it shaped her? “I think it’s changed me tremendously.” Priorities change, muses Stella. “You learn to value small things in life. You learn to be satisfied with much simpler things.”
She tells a story, from the time she went back to work after her first diagnosis. She was walking with her colleague Niki Christofi, going up to the ward, and they passed a roundabout planted with huge, imposing sunflowers. “And I turned around and said: ‘Niki, look at the sunflowers, aren’t they beautiful?’. And she says to me” – Stella gives it a short dramatic pause: “‘They’ve always been there!’. And I hadn’t seen them…”
It’s a lovely story, but I don’t know how useful it is in making sense of this practical, undoubtedly driven woman; newfound perspective or not, I’m pretty sure she needs more from life than gazing at sunflowers. Then again, there’s also something oddly vulnerable about Stella Kyriakidou, something I glimpse (or think I glimpse) without quite being sure of it. She seems so stable, so rational; yet she also maintains that her husband Kikis is the stable one (“I get excited”), and her brother Chris is “my rock” – a reminder that she’s been through a lot, despite her poise. “I love routine,” she says, rather surprisingly. “I don’t need big excitements.”
The work is challenging, the life is high-profile – yet the woman behind it may indeed have a softer, even shy side. It’s 10 past one, I’m packing up to leave; Stella sits in the small parliamentary office, flanked by Panicos and her secretary, looking more relaxed with the morning’s work behind her. “I feel happy,” she says unexpectedly. “It’s Friday, the end of the week. We had a good interview, nice honest conversation. I’m seeing friends this evening…” She nods, as if in defiance of the dark spectre that first appeared in her childhood, and the painful experiences that tried – and failed – to define her: “I’m happy”. That’s all it takes, apparently.