If you imagine someone with cancer, you won’t imagine Mandy.
Hollywood and horror stories have spread the popular image of a cancer patient as someone pale and frail, confined to a hospital bed, but there is no particular way of having the illness.
Cancer can claim someone in a week or it can be beaten with quick detection and quicker surgery. It might be vanquished and then re-appear, pushing someone in and out of remission for years or, in Mandy’s case, the diagnosis might suffuse the person with a superhuman passion to get things done.
You might confront it, as Mandy did, by saying, “Bugger you! I’m gonna fight back.”
Meeting in Partick Library, we settle down with cups of tea in a cosy corner. The library is a sturdy Victorian building, but is made light and airy inside by its grand glass cupola and tall windows. When Mandy brings our tea from the tiny kitchen, she chuckles and apologises for using powdered milk but it doesn’t matter. My drink goes untouched because when Mandy starts talking you wouldn’t dare disturb her by slurping tea and clattering saucers.
So I was horrified when forced to interrupt. But I just had to. I needed to clarify something she said because it sounded crazy.
“What – you have terminal cancer?”
She smiles and sips her tea. “Yeah.”
I assume she’s used to being asked that question by spluttering idiots because she is energetic, glowing and has a schedule busier than Theresa May’s. Forget the tea: after speaking with Mandy I felt like I’d downed a startling espresso.
So it was hard to believe she has terminal cancer. It was also hard to believe she has to make her own tea. A woman as industrious as her should have lackeys. She should be able to snap her fingers and have tea appear on a silver tray. I’ll bet the PM doesn’t make her own.
Mandy is 41. She has a husband, two children, a busy job in intellectual property, and an even busier diary crammed with speeches, fashion shows, campaigns and London trips, the latter arising from her voluntary work with the cancer charity, Macmillan.
It was three days before Christmas 2009 when she was given her diagnosis. Breast cancer which had spread to the liver. Two years to live. Terminal. She was only 35, with a daughter and a newborn son.
The news was astounding. “It turned out my pregnancy had masked the cancer,” she explains. A lump had appeared in her breast but “I didn’t get myself checked out because I assumed the lump was due to breastfeeding and then, obviously, I’d left it too late and it spread to the liver.”
She’d never considered herself at risk of breast cancer as the campaigns target older women. The posters and adverts show grey-haired ladies, not busy young mums who roller-skate.
The NHS, which Mandy praises passionately, swung into action with tremendous speed and she was soon having radiotherapy, chemotherapy and eventually a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. And there were various practical matters to keep her mind off bleaker things.
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 – but now there was no chance of insurance.
She smiles and shrugs. “I’ve got nothing. Nobody touches you when you’ve got secondary breast cancer. So now my life is praying that I die while I’m still working so I get my Death In Service payment. I need to know my kids will be provided for. Instead of life insurance, I’m taking out funeral policies.” She laughs. “I’m practical like that!”
This is the key to Mandy’s vitality: she works hard so she can acquire savings, savings, savings to make sure her children are provided for, and she shares that glittering energy with Macmillan so she can help others who’re living with cancer.
That’s why we’re meeting at Partick Library. A project called Macmillan@GlasgowLibraries has seen friendly drop-in centres, run by trained Macmillan volunteers, operating in every single council library in Glasgow.
If you have cancer, or if you’re supporting someone who does, these places offer advice and practical support, and can arrange referrals for counselling or complementary therapies but, perhaps most importantly, they offer a visitor a chance to sit down and talk. You can discuss cancer or you tell it to get lost for a while and just talk about the football, the weather, your hairdo or holiday plans.
Macmillan chose to use libraries for this service as they are local and accessible but also because they’re very obviously not clinical places. Cancer patients shouldn’t have to take themselves off to anonymous rooms at the end of hospital corridors where the air is heavy with that lingering antiseptic odour which triggers anxiety in most of us.
Our nook in Partick Library smells warmly of books and ladies’ perfume, and the kettle is burbling. This place is open and welcoming yet still tucked nicely in the corner so that any conversations will be private. Because every library in Glasgow now has a Macmillan drop-in centre, you’re never more than a mile away from cancer support.
But you can probably guess that Mandy won’t be content with volunteering here for a few hours a week. Not the woman who recently celebrated her 40th birthday dressed as Wonder Woman. She feels the need to do more and there is no shortage of work to be done.
One of her main passions is to change the focus of breast cancer campaigns, which are aimed at older women. Mandy is restless in her chair when she says we need to reach younger women, especially mothers like herself whose cancer might be obscured by pregnancy.
It’s maddening to her that there’s no programme to encourage new mothers to check their breasts. She says, “If I didn’t think I’d get arrested I’d be up at every maternity ward saying check your boobies!”
When Jade Goody died, it triggered a huge campaign for young women to attend cervical screening, but Mandy asks why it took a celebrity’s death for us to start talking to girls about cancer. Young women get cancer too, not in the numbers that older women do, but does that mean their lives are less important?
She is also trying to change the impersonal approach some clinics have towards their patients. Whilst she has only the warmest praise for clinical staff, the system in some hospitals is bafflingly cold. In one clinic, a cancer patient is required to take a ticket and then wait for her “number” to be called. Isn’t that how Argos do it? But what a difference it would make to an anxious patient, says Mandy, if the staff took a moment to match that number to a name. Can’t we change the system? Bureaucracy is dogging her efforts here, but there’s no way she’s giving up.
Wonder Woman indeed, but why stop there? Mandy is also an inventor. Yet again, I’m forced to butt in. Wait, did she say she’s an inventor?
Sure, why not? She’s designed a clever little device for women who’ve had breast reconstruction. This type of surgery takes the patient’s back fat and pushes it through to form the new breast, but it results in muscle loss and some pain, so Mandy invented the Thera-Strap which holds a heat pad in place to ease the discomfort. Trademarks have been granted and it’s in production down in York.
I put my pencil down. I can’t take in everything she’s told me. Is there anything else to come? I’m exhausted. I’d actually love that cup of tea now, but it went cold ages ago.
But if I’m wilting, Mandy isn’t. She’s already making fresh tea and greeting the visitors who’re approaching the Macmillan corner. I put my coat on and watch someone take a seat beside Mandy and I know that whatever burden they’re carrying today, they couldn’t be in better hands.