Tough4T: Tiana Mangakahia on overcoming breast cancer and her return to hoops

From 2017 to 2019, Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia had established herself as one of the premier college players in the nation.The national leader in assists in her first season with 9.8 per game, Mangakahia followed that number with 8.4 in 2018/19, making her the leader among power conference players whilst also pouring in 17 points per game.

The WNBA was calling Mangakahia’s name, but the Queenslander made the decision to return to Syracuse for one more season. However, one phone call would completely derail Mangakahia’s plans. Having found a lump on her left breast, a trip to the doctor would result in the news nobody wants to hear.

“When I first found out, it was June 18, and it was in the morning,” Mangakahia recalls, with that date seemingly burned into her mind. “The doctor had called and told me that I have invasive ductal carcinoma. At first, I was like, ‘What is that?’ because I didn’t know.

“He was like, ‘it’s a form of breast cancer.’ I was like ‘Ok.' I freaked out. And he was telling me things. I couldn’t really keep track because I was just in shock.

“Then when I got off the phone to him, I called my friend Miranda Drummond – she played on the [Syracuse] team last year – to tell her. I was really upset because I didn’t want to call my mum and dad because no one would want to tell your parents that. You know, especially because they were all the way in Australia.

“So, after speaking to her, she kind of calmed me down a little bit, and then I called mum and dad. It was probably, I think it was midnight their time, and I was really upset. And they didn’t know what to do either, because we didn’t have anybody in the family who had breast cancer before, or any type of cancer. So it was all new to us, but I was feeling very shocked and upset and scared.”

A cancer diagnosis is lifechanging news in and of itself, but being based in a foreign country gave Mangakahia an immediate decision as to the pathway she would take to tackle her treatment process. Would she stay in Syracuse, or return home to Australia to be with her family during this no doubt trying process?

“Well, [the doctor] didn’t really know what to say to me because he didn’t know if I was going to do treatment in Australia or in America. So he pretty much told me, when you decide if you want to do it over there or here, you just let us know,” Mangakahia explained.

“And so then, after I spoke to my parents, I went to Coach Q [Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman] and I spoke to him about it, and he told my family that it would be best if I did it in Syracuse, because all the best medical doctors and everything is actually in Syracuse. There’s a big cancer centre here and the school is surrounded by hospitals. So he told my parents, because school is able to cover the cost of the treatment, my parents decided to come over here for the first treatment, and that’s why I decided to do treatment here.”

However Mangakahia wouldn’t be without her family, with her parents and brothers both making the long trip from Brisbane to Syracuse.

“My parents came over for the first two treatments, and my brothers, you know, they were here with me throughout the whole time. It meant a lot to me that they came over and supported me. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through it without them being here, because they always kept a positive atmosphere.”

But there was another reason that staying in Syracuse turned out to be a good decision. The bond that develops between teammates can be unbreakable, and the Syracuse team is no different.

Mangakahia’s teammates rallied around her, with a famous video of the team counting down the final seconds of her last chemotherapy session a microcosm of that support.

“It’s been amazing. I honestly don’t know what it would have been like anywhere else, like I don’t know if I would have received this much support. And so, for me, having them there with me, it’s meant so much to me.”

Although Mangakahia cherished the support of her family and teammates throughout the process, they weren’t the only ones to have her back. Mangakahia’s performances had made her one of the most well-known players in the nation, and the outpouring of support suggested as much. Not that Mangakahia had any idea of just what was to come.

“I didn’t expect that much support. Like obviously from the ACC and coaches, I know they support me, but I didn’t expect it to be around the whole country,” Mangakahia explained.

“Because I got messages from people from California, messages from people in Minnesota, from everywhere, on my Instagram, and it just shows how much support they give me, and Syracuse, my community, it’s just been amazing.”

Support didn’t just come from those in the college game, though. The Australian basketball community rallied around Mangakahia, from her local club in Brisbane to Aussies plying their trade in the NBA and WNBA.

In one particularly famous turn of events, Philadelphia 76ers forward Jonah Bolden, whom Mangakahia does not know personally, paid the entire remaining balance of a GoFundMe that Mangakahia had set up to help her parents make the trip. However, that was just one part of a massive outpouring of support.

“I reached out to Jonah, and I reached out to his agent, and obviously thanked them. It meant so much to me. I mean, Philly’s not far away from here, so I might make a trip.

“It’s been amazing. Sandy Brondello has been phenomenal, and she calls me and texts me all the time, she asks me how I’m doing, and making sure I’m well. It’s been amazing, the support I’ve received from the Opals staff has been incredible. I was at the camp in April before my diagnosis, so I got to know them really well. A lot of players, Liz Cambage, she’s reached out to me, and a lot of the girls I was at the camp with have messaged me.

“You know, I’m from Brisbane, and QBL – Brisbane Spartans, that’s where I grew up. The team there, they wore Tough4T shirts when I first got diagnosed, and just the support that I’ve received from them has been amazing.”

Tough4T. Seven characters representing Tiana Mangakahia in three different ways.

T, for Tiana.

4, her number for Syracuse.

And if you were asked to choose one word that describes Mangakahia, ‘tough’ would be pretty high on the list. The hashtag flooded Twitter and was seen on T-shirts on courts around the world, bringing a tangible sense of just how the women’s basketball community rallied around Mangakahia. Although there have been rocky patches throughout her journey, her toughness and maturity have shone through, particularly in difficult times.

“Going through treatments and everything, everyone else’s life still goes on and my life kind of stopped a little bit. Because, like I had to do all this and I wasn’t doing the same thing.

“Obviously throughout the whole process, there were days where I got really down and really sad, and it was like dark times. But it was very important, for me, I’ve stayed around friends, I’ve tried to be around people. Even when I was sad, I would prefer to be around people crying than by myself crying, because that just made me feel better and helped me get through it.

“Throughout that time, there were a lot of people that kind of left me, and they let me down. I thought they would be there through it all for me, and they weren’t. So, it was really hard for me, but I learnt so much from it, and it just made me stronger.”

Whilst a recent final surgery signalled the conclusion of this part of the journey, Mangakahia now travails the long road back to playing her delayed final season of college basketball. A kind of normality has returned to Mangakahia’s life, with basketball a major part of that.

“Right now, I just feel so happy and relieved and excited to really get back on the court. I’m excited to just go back to normal life, not having to go to doctor’s appointments all the time, and not having to think about, ‘Oh I still have to do this or have to do that,’ because that was my last surgery. So, I’m just really excited.”

However, Mangakahia never really left the game throughout her treatment process. Staying in Syracuse for treatment allowed her to be around the team and the sport she loves, and even provided the star point guard with a new perspective on the game as she watched on from the sidelines.

“It’s a good insight for me from the sidelines. I can view it differently, I can speak to the girls from a different angle, and I think it helps my leadership a lot,” Mangakahia explained.

“Because I have to be more vocal, instead of being a leader through my actions, I have to be a leader through my words. And I think it’s really helped me, and I think it will help the team next year when I’m back on court.

“[Basketball] helped a lot while I was going through treatment. I still played pickup with my friends, and I still tried to stay active. Then after my first surgery, same thing. I got back in the gym, and was shooting on the gun. It just helps me stay motivated, I would have something to look forward to for when it’s all over.”

“It’s hard [to come back], I would say it’s really hard mentally more than physically, going back to being normal life. Especially all the things that run through your mind, all the little things that really don’t matter.

“But, for me, I think that I’m going to be fine. I mean, I’ve always thought that from the beginning, I’ve never dreaded my comeback. I’ve always thought, ‘It’s going to be fine, I’m going to be back out on the court and be ten times better,’ so that’s just like a mental thing."

However, there is one thing that cannot be altered, no matter how well a player comes back from any setback, and that is the timing.

Whilst the WNBA draft is a yearly event and something that Mangakahia no doubt can look forward to, something else is not: the Olympic Games. Mangakahia had earned her way into the reckoning for an Opals spot prior to her diagnosis, but now, any dreams of chasing Olympic gold in 2020 appear to be dashed. But Mangakahia won’t be changing her goals, merely altering the timeline to reach them, with Paris 2024 now the aim.

“I think for that, [I will have to adjust my plans], because the Olympics is around the corner,” the point guard explained. “I don’t think that it will affect me in the future. I think that I’m a very determined athlete, and I know I can get back to where I was or come back even better and more successful. So, I’m not worried about, you know, not being able to do what I used to do. But I definitely think the Opals, maybe the next four years.”

However this journey has given Mangakahia another passion to fulfil. Many now see the basketball star as an inspiration for an entirely different, and bigger, reason.

Mangakahia has already made the trip to nearby Phoenix, New York, to surprise a high school player’s mother who had been battling breast cancer, and there appears to be plenty more similar opportunities on the horizon.

“It’s something I want to do, especially if people look up to me as an inspiration. It’s definitely something, I want to give back to them for their support,” Mangakahia revealed.

“That’s the main reason, just to be there for people, who are going through something that I’ve been through, and they can talk to me about it and you know, I’ve told everybody, when they see me, like don’t be scared to come up to me and say hi.

“I have other things. I’m actually going to my junior college [Hutchison Community College] in Kansas in February for their pink game. I’ve been asked to speak at different events, but this is something that I’m passionate about so it’s something that I’ll always do.”

In terms of sheer life events, there isn’t a lot that can compare to the journey of battling and beating cancer, and with that comes a lot of life experiences and perspective. Mangakahia is no different, having already identified several lessons that she has learned throughout the process.

“People say you can’t compare life with basketball. But basketball is a part of my life, it’s a big part of my life. So for me, it was really hard not to be able to play, but I knew there was a reason for it, and I know I’m stronger now than I ever was.

“But when it comes to perspective on life, I always think about, you don’t know what somebody’s going through, so always be kind. But it also puts other things in perspective for me, little things you get irritated about, anyone gets irritated about, you just have to brush it off, because it’s not a big deal compared to other things in life.”

But for Mangakahia, those ‘other things’ no longer need to include battling breast cancer. Now, the Syracuse star can return to chasing her goals, on and off the court. Or, in the long-term, a new goal. The Opals are about to head to France for an Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but Mangakahia won’t be on the plane. They likely won’t return to France until the Paris Olympics in 2024.

There'll be plenty of time to brush up on your French, Tiana.