Manda’s story – “I am incredibly sad. But life is profound after cancer.”

24 Feb 2023

Manda MacRae, 32, lives in Brisbane with her partner. In April 2020 she was diagnosed with aggressive triple-negative breast cancer.

“At a time when I was only worrying about living my best life and where we’d travel next, I found a lump in my breast in the shower. I’d never checked my breasts before. I mean, I was just thirty years old!” But something on that day, 26th March, 2020, made me do a self-examination. And I found a table tennis ball sized lump in my left breast, just above my heart.

“I jumped out of the shower and went to find my partner to make sure I wasn’t overacting. But I wasn’t. He could feel the lump too and agreed with me that it didn’t feel ‘normal’. I couldn’t see a female GP until the following Monday, so I spent the weekend in torture. I was worried about the lump, feeling it over and over, checking to see if it had changed at all.

“The GP sent me for an ultrasound. The report came back – the cyst was classed as benign, so I felt relieved. She recommended to do a biopsy. They drained the cyst of fluid, and I was told everything was fine.

“However, the next day the doctor called me. I thought it was just a follow up to see how I was feeling. After all, I’d been told I was fine. So, I went by myself. I’m naturally very talkative; I sat opposite the doctor chatting away. She was quite short with her answers, quite restricted.

“Then she placed my results on her desk. ‘You have invasive ductal carcinoma.” With the results were some breast cancer pamphlets and she told me that the hospital would be in touch.

“I just left my body. Thankfully I only live five minutes away from my GP. I got home and my partner came into the garage. I blurted out: ‘It’s cancer.’ And then I started sobbing.

“I then had to break the news to my mum. The day before I’d told her I had the all-clear. Today, I had to tell her I had cancer. I didn’t ask her to come over though – I wanted to be alone. I was emotionally exhausted and sat there trying to process it.

“When I told my younger brother (he’s 25), he was speechless. He didn’t know what to say or do. There’s nothing you can do when someone tells you they have cancer. You can’t take the cancer away from someone – no matter how much you love them.

“I think I was in shock for months. Even when I went to my first hospital visit around three weeks later, my diagnosis didn’t feel real. I remember sitting in the hospital, thinking: ‘My whole life is about to change.’ Even though everything had changed after my diagnosis, I was still in limbo. I felt well and healthy, I had no symptoms. Yet I had cancer at 30 years old.

“I often think ‘what if’. What if I hadn’t checked my breast that day? What if I hadn’t sought medical advice straight away?” It’s such a thin line. A sliding doors moment.

“Four weeks after I found the lump it had grown to 5 x 7cm in size. It wasn’t painful though. I had an appointment with a surgeon, then an oncologist and they outlined my treatment plan: six fortnightly treatments of double chemotherapy, 12 weekly chemotherapy treatments, a short break, then surgery, followed by radiation and six months of oral chemo.

“I had an afternoon to make decisions about the rest of my life. Even though my partner and I had discussed children we hadn’t embarked on actively trying for kids. I chose not to freeze my eggs though – time was of the essence, and I advised to begin chemo straight away. In the future if I can’t have children, we’ll look at adoption or fostering. It’s more important that I’m here for any potential children – to see them grow. If I’d waited until I could freeze my eggs, I may not have been alive to use them. I did however have measures in place to protect my eggs during treatment.

“The worst part of my treatment was the oral chemo. It was the absolute worst. It really knocked me around. The operation was okay but daunting because I went through it alone due to covid restrictions - I have a very small scar, barely noticeable, from the lumpectomy and removal of three lymph nodes. I lost my hair. My partner and I made an afternoon of it – it was actually fun! I had very long, thick hair. So, we shaved it in parts: I had a mullet, then a mohawk. Then finally I was completely shaven. Once I saw my shaved head it felt liberating because it was the one thing I could control.

“The worst of the treatment, and having cancer, wasn’t the physical corrosion of my body – it was the mental degradation. Having cancer is incredibly lonely. Nobody understands what you're living through because they are not living it. I am a very private person – only my close family and friends knew what I was going through. Almost all the women in the oncology ward were much older than me – I could see that they were wondering what I was doing there, since I was so much younger than them. This isolation enhanced the loneliness I felt throughout my cancer journey.

“I discovered the Pink Hope podcasts and I felt I’d suddenly found a place where I could get proper, expert information; a place where people knew and understand what I was going through. The podcasts were perfect for me – I could listen to them as and when I wanted to, in the privacy of my own home. I learned that it is okay to feel how you feel.

“I put up a façade that I was coping. I did this for everyone else – I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t handle it. Some days were just so tiring. It can feel like what life is expecting from you is just too much and it’s exhausting. It was the little wins in life that got me through just getting out of bed and enjoying a cup of tea was an achievement in itself.

“I’m now in remission. I’ll have to have six monthly check-ups, yearly mammograms and ultrasounds for the next five years… it’s ongoing. But for now, I’m clear. I did find it very difficult when I finished my treatment. There is no psychological support to help you once you’re out the other side. I sourced my own cancer psychologist, and we are working through things. I am incredibly sad. But there is life after cancer. Every day in every way I am getting stronger. You have to experience sadness to know happiness.

“I’m a writer, so I kept a journal throughout my journey. I also kept a ‘cancer box’. In it is everything relating to my story – hospital bands, results, photographs. It’s sort of a treasure chest. After all, cancer is a chapter of my life. Writing down my thoughts and feelings helped me enormously too. My cancer box pays homage to what I’ve gone through; it shows how far I’ve come and how my perspective has changed. And how I’ve been changed forever by this.”