It's ten years since Marie Keating died at 51 from breast cancer. Her son Ronan used his showbiz profile to create a cancer foundation in her name. "People talk to me more about cancer than music these days," Ronan tells Pol O Conghaile
 
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It must have been some sight - Marie Keating, beaming away, signing autographs outside the Point Depot. Inside, the baby of her house­hold had delivered another electric performance with Boyzone. The band was near the height of its powers, and Marie was in her ebul­lient element.
"I remember the security had to actually come out and grab my mother and bring her backstage because the fans were all over her!" Linda Keating recalls. "She was like, Hold on a second, I'm signing auto­graphs!' There would be people out­side the house as well. 'They're Ronan's fans,' she'd say. She'd be giving them cups of tea!"
Ronan collapses with laughter. "I remember once she brought some of them into the house and showed them my bedroom." He looks at his sister, a gleam in the eye, shaking his head incredulously. "I said, 'Mam, you can't do that!' She said, 'But they were standing out in the cold!'"
There follows an hilarious bout of nitpicking, as brother and sister argue over whether their mother's autographing adventures came after So Good or Words. Any other family might measure out its life in coffee spoons. With this one, it's hit singles.

Family Ties
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Where fame favoured the Keatings, however, cancer did not. Long before that stellar night, Marie Keat­ing had detected a possible symp­tom of cancer in her breast, but failed to follow it up. By September 1996, she was carrying a Grade Five lump.
A mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed, before the disease encroached on her spine. Ten years ago, on February 2, 1998, aged just 51, breast cancer claimed her.
"I think all of us at the time felt angry and confused," Ronan recalls. "In Mam's generation, can­cer was very much ignored. It was a no-no. Men and women going to the doctor and getting their testicles and breasts checked . that just wouldn't happen 15 years ago."
Bustling about a suite in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, this is the first time the Keating siblings and their father, Gerry, have been in the same room in months.
"It's like Boyzone all over again," Ronan jokes, tapping Gary on the head as the brothers banter and Linda passes around photos from the family album. Every one of them is blessed with eyes as blue as the sky above Malahide harbour.
"Mam was our rock, you know?" Ronan, now 30, explains. "We all circled around Mam. So when she was gone we found it hard to find something to bring us together. And I think that's what the Foundation did. It helped us to keep going, to have a focus as a family. Without sounding too hippy-ish, it allowed us to channel all that negative energy and do something positive with it."
"The anger is still there, because it took just a normal family in the country to put something together," agrees Ciaran, 42. "And the reason we could do that is basically because of Ronan's name. But I think what the Marie Keating Foun­dation has done in Ireland is made cancer not a bad word. The C-word used to be a bad word, but everyone can talk about it freely and openly."
Linda, 40, recalls the moment her mother broke the news. At the time, Linda was managing a restau­rant in New York. "She called me and said, 'I have a lump.' And I said, 'Right mother, I'm on my way.'
I literally arrived at 6.30am and we were in the hospital at 9am. Here was I thinking, it's not going to be us. I'll go into the hospital, then we'll have a bit of craic for four days and I'll go back on Mon­day. But I never went back."{mospagebreak title=Page 2}
Marie was a young mother, giv­ing birth to Ciaran, the first of five children, at just 19. To this day, Linda remembers her as much as a friend as a parent.
"When she died, we were help­less," she says. 'Mum had the most curable form of breast cancer... if she had her breast removed that would have been it. No chemo, no radiotherapy, no nothing."
"Which is hard to deal with," Ronan sighs. 'If there was a serv­ice back then like we have now, Mam would still be alive. That's the bottom line really."
Ronan Keating
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The Marie Keating Foundation was born of a very simple urge. "We did actually sit around the table after Mum died and say, what can we do?" Linda recalls. "We wanted something to help relieve other people from the pain we were feeling. It was just horrific. The only way I can explain it was that it was like an open wound."
Within a month, the Keatings had their charity number. "We all had different roles to play in putting it together," Ronan remembers. "I had the profile, so I was the face. All the lads in their own ways had dif­ferent strengths. Linda was on the ground making things happen. She had this idea of getting mobile awareness units on the road."
Slowly but surely things carne together. Months after registering the charity, Linda had despaired at abank balance of €200. By 2001, however, there were three mobile units on the roads, spiriting regis­tered nurses and a cancer aware­ness mission countrywide.
Today, the Marie Keating Foun­dation is one of the best known charities in Ireland. Golf classics, charity walks and pink ribbon balls have raised some €5 million, enabling the units to reach over 66,000 people.
In recent years, as its focus broadens to other forms of cancer, the charity has launched a Depart­ment of Education-approved schools programme and begun tak­ing its first steps into the UK.
"Really what we're all about is pointing people in the right direc­tion, making them realise they're not wasting their doctor's time and that there's no such thing as a stu­pid question," Linda says. "Basical­ly, if cancer is caught in time, you've a much better chance of survival."
Irish people are now more will­ing to talk about 'the Big C', the Keatings believe. "For a man to step on board and talk to a female oncology nurse," Gary, 35, says, "it's saying, 'Look, I don't want to die early. I want to protect myself, I'm not going to get embarrassed any more about this. Life is too short'."
"People talk to me more about cancer than music these days," Ronan smiles. "Men are far more aware, especially my generation. They check themselves and they get checked out in hospitals... peo­ple want to live, you know?"
The singer had a scare of his own three years ago, it transpires, on holiday in South Africa. "I checked myself and found a lump in one of my testicles. I panicked and called my doctor at home. He said, 'Listen Ronan, I can't tell you over the phone, but I'm pretty sure you're fine.' But for the whole hol­iday, for two weeks in South Africa, it never left my mind."
Ronan & Yvonne
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As soon as he got home, he visit­ed his GP. "You go to the doctor, drop your trousers, and that's a very difficult thing to do," he says. An ultrasound scan confirmed a harm­less cyst, "but I didn't sleep proper­ly for two weeks. I was panicking "
Does he still worry, feel afraid? "Yeah, I'm terrified about it. We're all terrified about it because it's been in our family. And there's probably not a family in this coun­try that hasn't been touched by cancer. That's why we're so scared, because we all know it's out there."
Ronan has three children of his own, of course - a fact feeding into his determination to stay fit and healthy. "I definitely do worry that I won't get to see my children grow up," he says. "There's no reason why I shouldn't, but you can't help it. I pray every night that I will get to see them do the things I want to see them do, please God."
Does he sense his mother in his parenting? "Constantly! Trying to teach the kids manners or values, I can hear myself - I sound like my mother all the time talking to them! You have to pinch yourself some­times and say, 'Stop, don't do it!' But it's not a bad thing either. If I can give my kids half of what she gave us, I'd be happy."
As the Marie Keating Founda­tion's success attests, great strides have been made in cancer treat­ment and awareness in Ireland. Expert oncologists have returned, treatments are significantly advanced, stigmas are being stripped back. According to the National Cancer Registry, the risk of dying of cancer is now falling by 1.5 per cent per year.

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