TV cook Karen Coakley says quitting cigarettes was the best decision she ever made as it opened up a whole new world to her. And despite serious health challenges, she says life has never been better.
Don't ever doubt yourself because you can never know what you’re capable of.
That’s the motivating message from Bantry woman Karen Coakley, perhaps better known to her almost 14,000 Instagram followers as ‘kenmarefoodie.’
Karen, lives in Kenmare with her husband and four sons, and is known countrywide for her cooking slot on RTE’s Today Show, her blog, cookery classes and food tours.
But what many people might not know is that until 10 years ago, she smoked 30 cigarettes a day and it was only when she quit, that she discovered what she calls her ‘new life.’
That saw her take up running, finish a marathon, and compete in All-Ireland rowing competitions – all things she assumed she’d be ‘no good at.’ It also marked the beginning of her hugely successful food career which saw her become a leading name in Ireland’s food circles.
Essentially, the 46-year-old says quitting smoking was the ‘pivotal moment’ when everything changed.
‘And like everything in my life it was accidental. I never planned it. My husband Vincent was training for the Athens marathon at the time. He was a smoker too and quit. Our twins were three and the older two hated me smoking so I gave up and planned to do it for three days, basically to buy me some time before they’d put me under pressure again. It was the hardest thing ever so when I got to day three I decided there was no way I was going to go through all that again and I stuck with it!’ she said.
Shortly after quitting, when she crossed the finish line in a 15 mile road race in Kerry, that she ultimately realised there was nothing she couldn’t do.
Karen became a mum when she was 19-years-old when she was working in SuperValu, Bantry and Vincent was training to be a solicitor. Fast forward 27 years and three more sons, it mightn’t seem like such a big deal, but she admits in 1992 in Bantry, it did cause some gossip.
‘I’m someone who didn’t go to college and even though I’m very happy, and a real glass half full type of person, it was only when I crossed that finish line I realised I could do more than stand at the kitchen sink, that I could do anything. It gave me a whole new lease of life,’ she remembers.
That saw her play a key role in the start up of Kenmare’s Food Festival, start her hugely successful blog, build up a strong following on Instagram and Twitter, which all led to her landing her national TV slot.
But having discovered this whole new part to her life, Karen faced a major hurdle when she was diagnosed with melanoma which threatened everything she had worked so hard for.
‘I was at the hairdressers around five years ago when she remarked on a black mark on my head that she felt wasn’t there before.
'A little while later I was walking the Camino with some friends, one of whom was a veterinary nurse, who really advised that I get it checked. Two weeks later I was in the South Infirmary, and having been diagnosed with stage one melanoma, two weeks later I was back having it removed.’
Karen is quite matter of fact about that experience from around three years ago: ‘Melanoma is the most aggressive form of cancer so in hindsight I was very lucky. But I held on to the fact that it was stage one and took it one sleep at a time. It was just two weeks between diagnosis and the surgery, to our world being turned upside down, so that helped and Vincent was fantastic,’ she said.
There was further upheaval for Karen though. She had been aware of a problem with her heart, something that had been picked up when the twins were born, but during melanoma surgery it became clear she had early onset heart failure which threatened her life.
‘Basically my heart was enlarged and beating irregularly 45% of the time,’ she said.
The good news was that it was curable and she underwent what’s called an ablation – a three hour procedure which she was fully awake for.
She described that day as ‘terrifying’ and in a moving Instagram post last month she wrote: ‘They put a rod in through your groin and burn the piece of the heart causing the problem, but you have to be wide awake… it took three hours of not being able to move a fraction and I’ll never forget the feeling.. I swore through my tears that I’d get back rowing as it’s my first love and that I’d cross a finish line in running. So just three years after the whole saga started, my heart rate is back to normal and I’ve had my second row and OMG did it feel good!’
Since then she’s smashed another goal having had her first ever row in a double skull and she says: ‘Life is for living and grabbing every opportunity.’
An only child, she said she missed parents John and Esther and West Cork terribly during Lockdown and has just enjoyed her first visit back to her beloved Bantry.
Surprisingly though Karen does not beat the ‘quit smoking’ drum to anyone.
‘I’m not anti-smoking,’ she insists. ‘If I was on death row, the first thing I’d ask for is a Silk Cut Purple! But I know I can’t go back, I don’t want to be that person. My message is simple: don’t box yourself off or you won’t discover your true potential.’
Follow Karen on Instagram at kenmarefoodie.