THREE days before Christmas 2009, young mum Mandy Macfarlane was told she had just two years to live.
Seven years on, she continues to defy doctors.
And as she prepares to meet health secretary Shona Robison to campaign for better care for breast cancer sufferers, the unstoppable 41-year-old reveals what keeps her going: her family – and a secret diary!
“People often say they don’t know how I do it – but when you have something to focus on, you find the strength.
“I got mine from my kids. I knew I had to be strong for them – and their love would keep me alive.”
Mandy is a doting mum to Chloe, 21, and Sam, 7. And if anything she’s probably proven a big inspiration to them too.
Despite her terminal diagnosis, Mandy still works full-time to provide for them long after she’s gone.
And when she’s not playing housewife and mum, she’s devoting almost all of her free time to cancer causes.
If Mandy’s not starring in a fundraising catwalk show, she’s giving speeches or hosting support sessions.
“Some people joke that I’m superwoman,” she laughed. “But when you don’t know how long you have left, you just have to cram everything in.”
It was December 22, 2009 when Mandy was given her diagnosis: breast cancer, which had spread to her liver.
“My pregnancy had masked the cancer,” she recalled. “A lump had appeared on my breast but I didn’t get myself checked out because I assumed it was just something to do with breastfeeding.
“That assumption, as it happens, cost me my future.”
Being at risk hadn’t even crossed Mandy’s mind.
“My first thought was, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’ve just had a baby.
“My second was that I’d have to tell my family.”
Mandy had to draft in husband Richy, 40, to break the news that she had a limited time left.
“I worried it would break their hearts – and seeing them upset would break mine,” she confessed.
She did her best to explain it to Chloe, then just 14. Sam, who was only eight months at the time, was – and still is – oblivious to his mother’s bleak outlook.
“I told Chloe I was sick and probably wouldn’t live as long as her gran – but I guess when you’re a teenager, your gran’s age feels like a lifetime away!” she joked.
The news made for a bleak Christmas. At a time when the Macfarlanes should have been celebrating baby Sam’s first visit from Santa, they were contemplating whether his mum would survive long enough to see his first day at school.
“It was just awful. Nevertheless, I put a brave face on for the kids.”
Within days Mandy, who works in intellectual property, was starting chemotherapy and eventually had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, followed by radiotherapy. She took just seven weeks off work to recover.
Being busy with a newborn, she’d let her life insurance expire. The boring task of renewing the policy had been lost somewhere on her endless “to do” list. She needed to work to give her kids a good life now – and after she’s gone.
Thinking about the future used to bring tears but now Mandy has so much positivity and it’s undeniably infectious.
“I couldn’t fall apart – or everyone else would,” she said. Mandy’s emotional outlet was a journal, which she started writing the day of her diagnosis.
“It was a way to let off steam, rather than tell anyone how I was feeling,” she explained.
“My family have never read it and my hubby has no idea I am still writing it. Most are not aware the journal even exists.
“I guess you could say I’m like Bridget Jones, only with two kids – and cancer!”
Mandy’s diary is now proving a source of inspiration.
She reads excerpts to help cancer charities assist others living with the condition, as well as educate professionals in the field. The diary also serves as a personal record which she hopes, one day, to publish.
Next week she’ll try to persuade the Scottish Government to invest more in services as part of Breast Cancer Care’s Not Second Rate campaign.
“Women with incurable cancer already face so much uncertainty. It’s so important they get the support they need.
“They’re on borrowed time and often get second-rate care.
“I want to give hope to people with secondary breast cancer by showing them that you can live with the diagnosis – and persuade the Government to help us and not write us off. Being told you might die in a couple of years … it really changes your perspective.
“Now I just want to get the most out of life – well, what life I have left – and give something back.”
Mandy, who has been on hormone therapy drug Letrozole for more than six years, added: “My cancer journey hasn’t been easy, but I’m not bitter about it. I had a choice of letting cancer take hold or showing it who is boss – and I chose the latter.
“I set myself a target of 10 years. I needed to be there for my kids. It wasn’t an option.
“And so far I’ve been lucky to meet the milestones I never thought I would see, like Sam’s first day at school and Chloe going to college, and my 40th birthday.
“But there are still so many I want to be here for. I want to see my kids get married and I would love to be a grandmother.
“Getting a terminal diagnosis feels like the end – but it doesn’t have to be.”
The last few years have been particularly tough for Mandy, watching her husband being diagnosed with skin cancer and the discovery of a tumour on her mum’s kidney. And just a few weeks ago, Sam was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
However, it only makes her family look forward to Christmas a little more.
“It’s a time to forget about those dark clouds over our heads and just embrace every moment,” said Mandy.
“Christmas for us is a poignant time as it gets us thinking about how long I have left – but also how far I’ve come.
“Now it’s a celebration that I’ve survived another year.
“And hopefully there are many more to come.”
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