- A 29-year-old woman had a mole on her right shoulder, which turned out to be an aggressive cancer.
- Courtney Mangan said that she didn’t think she could get skin cancer, partly because she could tan.
- The cancer, called a melanoma, later spread to her bowel and thigh.
A 29-year-old woman who thought she couldn’t get cancer because she didn’t have fair features was “completely shocked” when doctors told her a mole on her right shoulder had become an aggressive cancer, which would spread to her bowel and thigh years later.
Courtney Mangan, from Australia, told Insider that she had known about melanoma — the rare form of skin cancer that she was diagnosed with — from a young age. Her father first had it when he was 12 years old and her maternal uncle died from the disease, which often invades other parts of the body.
However, she didn’t think she was at risk, partly because she was a “redhead” with brown eyes — rather than green or blue eyes — and she could tan.
“I always thought that my skin was a little bit different,” she said.
Although people with pale skin that burns easily and blond hair are more likely to develop melanoma, the condition can affect anyone. Too much exposure to ultraviolet waves, either from sunlight or sunbeds, is one of the “most important” causes of melanoma, the British Association of Dermatologists states.
Mangan said her mole was in the exact place where the sun hit her when she drove her car.
“You wear sunscreen when you’re sun baking at the beach or you’re sitting around having a cocktail at the pool, but it’s all those incidental times, like driving the car or grabbing a coffee, that you don’t really realize how damaging it is,” she said.
People with red hair are also at a higher risk of developing melanoma, as well as those with a family member who has had the disease, such as Mangan.
In the US, there have been an estimated 99,780 new cases of melanoma this year, and about 7,650 people are expected to die from it, National Institutes of Health data suggests. In Australia, an estimated 17,756 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2022, according to the Australian government.
A ‘rude awakening’ of how serious melanoma can be
In December 2017, Mangan’s best friend’s dad, a family doctor, spotted a mole on her right shoulder and urged her to see a specialist. Three days later, the specialist diagnosed her with melanoma, and within weeks she had surgery to remove the cancerous mole.
“I was a little bit naive as to how dangerous melanoma is and how aggressive it can be,” Mangan, now 36, said. “I think a lot of young people think that you just cut the mole out and you’re done, you’ll be safe, and you’ll just get on with your life.”
Two years later, Mangan discovered a pea-sized lump that she thought was a pimple beneath the skin of her right arm, which she showed to a doctor.
“It was so small that I had to grab his finger and point it to where it was,” she said. That doctor referred her to a melanoma specialist.
A PET scan revealed that the melanoma had spread to lymph nodes in her arm. The specialist said that he’d surgically remove it within days, and told Mangan her chances of survival for the next five years were 18% if she only had surgery.
“It was a rude awakening,” Mangan said.
The doctor said she also needed a treatment, called immunotherapy, that uses the body’s immune system to attack cancerous cells.
“It’s still fairly new compared to other cancer treatments, so I was obviously, understandably, really scared,” she said, adding: “And also hopeful that it would cure me.”
Mangan paused potentially life-saving treatment to freeze her eggs
Before she could start, the doctors recommended that Mangan freeze her eggs, because immunotherapy can affect fertility.
“It’s hard to think about your future when you’re not sure if you have one,” Mangan, who was single at the time, said.
But, recognizing its practicality, she froze six eggs that she can use when she is cancer-free for five-years.
Mangan said she stopped breathing during one cancer treatment
Mangan started the treatment at a local clinic, but 20-minutes after taking the immunotherapy drug, she felt lightheaded and her heart started racing. The side effects got progressively worse with each session. During the fourth treatment, she stopped breathing.
Doctors told her that they thought she was allergic to the treatment, and she would have to go to hospital, rather than a clinic, every two weeks to receive additional drugs, like steroids and antihistamines, to prevent the reaction.
“I’d get checked in, for about eight hours, into a hospital room by myself,” she said of the sessions, which mostly took place during the COVID pandemic, when hospital rules meant she couldn’t have anyone with her. The drugs “knocked me out” within minutes, she said.
The cancer spread to Mangan’s bowel
Two months after completing that treatment, a routine PET scan found the cancer in her bowel, and Mangan underwent surgery to remove it. Three months later, it spread to her thigh.
Doctors told her the cancer was spreading fast to other parts of her body.
In December 2021 — four years after her initial diagnosis — the doctors offered her another immunotherapy treatment with serious side effects.
“The doctors even said to me, we will be surprised if you can get more than two doses before your body shuts down and you have to go to the hospital, with colitis or autoimmune diseases and a whole heap of issues,” she said.
Mangan said that while her pregnant friends had “go-bags” at home, ready to take to the hospital when they gave birth, she had one in case of bad side effects.
The cancer has ‘disappeared,’ but Mangan is still having treatment
Mangan had all four doses of the immunotherapy without experiencing any serious side effects, and scans showed that the cancer “disappeared.”
She still takes an immunotherapy treatment once a month for an hour, and will do so for at least two years.
It makes her forgetful, her joints are painful, and she often gets ulcers and oral thrush in her mouth.
But the hardest part is “the mental side,” she said.
“I’m in that age group where people are getting married, buying houses, having children. They’re in that box-ticking era when you’re in your thirties and my box is just to stay alive,” she said.
Her life’s mission is to share her story to raise awareness.
“I have no control of what happens with my own life at this point because it’s in my doctor’s hands, but I could potentially save somebody else’s life by being very vocal, honest, and authentic,” she said.