When former music TV presenter and seasoned party girl Helena McAlpine passed away at just 37 from breast cancer in November 2015, her daughter Shannon made a promise.
“I’m gonna do big things for her,” vowed the then-15-year-old.
Her poignant yet funny eulogy was easily the most impressive of the packed funeral service, which included tributes from seasoned public speakers, including broadcasters John Campbell and Clarke Gayford.
Fast-forward 18 months and Shannon, an apprentice hairstylist, is making those words come true – as an ambassador for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation (NZBCF).
Shannon was a speaker at several of the charity’s nationwide Pink Ribbon breakfasts that took place throughout May to encourage earlier detection.
“Mum used to say, ‘When I die, Shannon will take over,’” she tells Woman’s Day. “So when I got an email from NZBCF, I just thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I’m not afraid of public speaking – I grew up with Mum doing it – and it’s good to be able to do something like this, to share my experiences and go on a bit of a road trip.”
British-born Helena was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. Although the cancer was in remission, it came back in 2012, spreading to her liver and becoming terminal.
Throughout that time and despite taking a heavy cocktail of drugs, she became a key spokesperson for NZBCF, as well as marrying banker Christopher Barton in a fairytale wedding in December 2014.
At 16, Shannon is strikingly similar to her loud, irreverent, creative mother. It’s in her looks, her eloquence and her confidence, which exudes from every pore.
She admits this can be a mixed blessing.
“I definitely have Mum’s attitude and her temper,” she says. “The older I get, the angrier I’ve become. I’m just as rude as she was! But there are some good things I’ve inherited too.”
The teenager has a close relationship with her Kiwi stepdad Brett McAlpine.
“Dad is like the loveliest, kindest, sweetest bogan,” she grins.
But it’s the bond with her boyfriend of two years, Rene Owen, 19, that she credits with helping her the most over the past couple of years. He, too, lost his mum to cancer at a young age.
Rene, a spray painter and furniture remover, was just seven when his mother passed away from the disease. But unlike Shannon, whose mum fought a very public campaign, he wasn’t involved or educated about his mum’s illness.
“He was told she was sick and then she was in hospital,” tells Shannon. “He didn’t really understand what was going on. She passed away two weeks later. They couldn’t afford a funeral, so she just has a little plaque at the funeral home.”
Touchingly, Rene was adopted by his family’s next-door neighbour after his mum’s death and remained there until he moved out at 16.
“He still goes to church to see her on Sundays,” tells Shannon proudly. “We spent Christmas with them.”
Shannon recalls the moment Rene first met her fearsome mum, who was in and out of hospital.
“She was very protective of me and she was so mean to him!” she says.
“She wouldn’t let him anywhere near her, even though he came to hospital with me every time. If she woke up and he was in the room, she’d kick him out!
“We were at the house a lot in the days before she died and for the first time, she was really affectionate to Rene, wanting to cuddle into him and hold his hand.”
Shannon admits she and Helena had a fractious relationship – largely because of the cancer.
“When Mum went on medication, my whole relationship with her changed. I was nine when she got cancer and it freaked the s--- out of me.
“She went from being the coolest mum on the planet to being really tired all the time – and really nutty, bipolar and angry. It changed everything for us. When I tried to settle in with her again, I just couldn’t do it.”
But Shannon wants to make it very clear that she’s no angel. Throughout our chat, she talks 10 to the dozen, a cheeky glint in her eye as she recalls some of her moments from the past couple of years – underage drinking, shoplifting sprees, a couple of weeks living in a car and court appearances.
“Actually, me and Rene were both in court [for separate things] on the day Mum died,” she tells. “Dad called and said, ‘You should probably get over here.’”
Shannon admits she found it easier to deal with Helena’s death than many of her mum’s family, who came over from the UK to be with her in the days before her passing.
“I just knew I needed to be there for my family, for the people who were really struggling. At the time, I hated Mum for all the s--- she’d done to me. I had spent a lot of time with her and these guys hadn’t. I had to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’d had a much better relationship with her than I did.”
There have been many challenges for Shannon since Helena died, but one of the biggest has been coming to terms with the romantic relationship that’s developed between her stepdad Chris and Helena’s best friend, musician Hollie Smith.
“They never really spoke to me about it,” she tells. “They told my dad and he said, ‘Me and Shannon already knew.’ I can’t stop it from happening and I understand as much as anyone how hard it is to love someone and not have them accepted because Mum was like that to Rene. I think it would’ve pissed Mum off, but then again, most things pissed Mum off!”
When Servilles Hair Academy offered Shannon the chance to train as a hairdresser in November 2016, a year after Helena’s death, Shannon jumped at it. She had twice been expelled from school – where her attendance was a mere four percent – and knew it wasn’t the right environment for her.
In hairdressing, however, she has found a challenge and her attendance has remained at 88 per cent “because I don’t want to let my clients down”.
Among her more colourful experiences has been doing wedding hair and make-up for the wife of a prominent gang leader.
“It was raining like crazy and I was a bit nervous, but it was a great experience – they were actually the nicest people,” she tells with a smile. “It’s probably not one to put on the CV, but it was really interesting.”
Over the past 18 months, Shannon has fully embraced her new career path. Freshly graduated, she’s planning on taking some time out later in the year, including a holiday to the Gold Coast with Rene, before immersing herself once again in hairdressing.
“I love talking to my older clients,” she says. “They always have so many great stories. As well as the NZBCF, it’s given me a purpose, a direction. I think, or at least I hope, that Mum would be proud of me.”
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