After Cancer Interrupted Her Life and Career, Tiana Mangakahia Isn't Backing Down

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Syracuse Tiana Mangakahia cancer battle

Cynthia and Terei Mangakahia have big plans for New Year’s Eve at their home in Brisbane, Australia. First, they’re going to find a large piece of cardboard and write “2019” on it. Then, they’re going to bring it to their roof, grab a lighter and burn it. “It was a really horrible year,” Cynthia says. “Bring on 2020.”

For the Mangakahias, 2019 was supposed to be memorable for different reasons than it was. Their only daughter, Tiana, was supposed to play her senior year as Syracuse’s starting point guard after being named All-ACC first team and honorable mention All-American while leading the team with 16.9 points and 8.4 assists per game as a junior. She was supposed to lead the team in scoring again and was supposed to face off with No. 1 Oregon and Sabrina Ionescu in an early-season battle of star players. Then she’d move onto the WNBA, maybe as a lottery pick, and join other great Australian basketball stars like Liz Cambage and Stephanie Talbot.

But Tiana Mangakahia hasn’t played a minute of basketball for Syracuse this season. Instead, she’s battled through eight chemotherapy treatments and a double mastectomy. She’s lost her thick, long, sun-kissed hair. It was Tuesday, June 18 and she’d been waiting for results over the weekend after a mammogram and biopsy. The doctor woke her up at 8 a.m., calling to tell her “in literally a 30-second conversation” that she had stage 2 breast cancer, or invasive ductal carcinoma. It was fast growing, but receptive to treatment. Mangakahia had noticed a lump on her left breast for the first time a few weeks prior while taking a shower. She initially tried to ignore it and not worry—she was a healthy 24-years-old who didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. It was probably a cyst and would go away. It didn’t.

“When he told me, I couldn’t stop crying,” says Mangakahia, who was alone in her apartment that morning when she got the call. Most of her friends and teammates had gone home for the summer while she stayed back to train. “I was freaked out. I never thought this would happen to me.”

The next move was to call her parents in Brisbane. It was the middle of the night and Mangakahia felt bad waking them up, but it would have been worse if she didn’t. The three of them cried together, 9,503 miles separating their tears. “I told her to come home,” her father Terei says.

But Mangakahia didn’t want to come home. She’d been in America for about five years and Syracuse was her home. Australia, though, was where she learned to love the game, playing it because her four older brothers did. Eventually, she’d be the one to turn the sport into a career after playing for her state team of Queensland and being invited to train at the renowned Australian Institute of Sport, where she lived for two years with Talbot, Ben Simmons and Dante Exum.

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She surprised her parents by wanting to attend college and play ball in America instead of turning pro and staying in Australia. She first attended Hutchinson Community College in Kansas before transferring to Syracuse, where coach Quentin Hillsman’s system of pushing the ball in transition and running fits her well. “She’s a gifted passer and unselfish with the ball in her hands,” Hillsman says. Mangakahia grew up idolizing Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo and has tried to mold her game after them.

Before rushing into game planning or treatment decisions, though, Hillsman told the family he’d like to consult with his doctor, team physician James Tucker, and ask, “If my wife or your wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, who would you see? What would we do? Because that’s what I want for Tiana.” Together, they helped connect Mangakahia with esteemed oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Kirshner at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center in Syracuse.

In awe of the care their daughter was going to receive, Cynthia and Terei huddled their family—five sons plus significant others—in Australia to outline the journey ahead. Everybody dissected their respective calendars and made a travel schedule so that Tiana would always have a family member with her during chemo. Cynthia and Terei, who are both teachers, came three times over the last five months while each of Tiana’s brothers came at least once. Nobody’s boss gave them trouble for taking the time off, which could come in two- or three-week chunks. “It’s not like we were planning a trip to the Bahamas,” Cynthia says.

Flights from Brisbane to Syracuse always included a stop in Los Angeles after 14 hours, then four or five more hours to Chicago or Philadelphia, then another hour or so on to Syracuse. They’ve been diverted a few times because of storms and slept in various U.S. airports. “We’ve had it by the time we get there,” Cynthia says. And when her Aussie family couldn’t be there, Mangakahia had her Syracuse family. There were close friends and teammates like Emily Engstler and Digna Strautmane, who were at the hospital during surgery, and sports information director Olivia Coiro and Hillsman’s wife, Shandrist, who took Mangakahia to doctor’s appointments and helped her FaceTime with her parents before, during and after so they could listen and ask questions. “We called ourselves her American moms,” Coiro says.

The day after Mangakahia found out she had cancer, she went jet skiing on the lake with some friends. A few days after one of her first chemo treatments, she drove eight hours to Lynchburg, Va. to watch the Syracuse football team play Liberty in the season opener. She still went to class and is pursuing a master’s degree in sports venue and event management. She also found time and energy to play pickup three times a week in between her eight rounds of chemo that spanned from July 5 to Oct. 11. “Sometimes she’d get tired and sick, but she still got her sneakers on and played,” Coiro says.

The worst part of this whole thing wasn’t sitting out this season, or the needles or the IVs or chemo running through her body. She says it was losing her luscious hair. During one visit, Cynthia went to Macy’s to find some cute wigs and wraps. Tiana tried them on, but didn’t feel like herself and said to her mom, “You know what? I’ve got no hair. I’m bald. I’m just going to own it,” Cynthia recalls. “I was so proud of her. I don’t know if I could have done the same thing, being so brave.”

Adds Tiana: “I didn’t like going out and meeting people and then going home and taking [my wig] off and people not seeing me as I am. It’s like if I wear lots of makeup and take it off and look like a different person.”

Tiana Mangakahia Sabrina Ionescu Oregon

Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, left, and Syracuse's Tiana Mangakahia, right, talk before a Nov. 24, 2019 game in Syracuse, N.Y.

The night before her surgery on Nov. 6, Mangakahia was scared, which didn’t happen often. So in a very characteristic effort to lighten the mood, she took a selfie video as she entered the hospital to always remember the moment. It took doctors about five hours to remove the tumor and her breast tissue. They didn’t find cancerous cells in her lymph nodes, which meant it hadn’t spread and she was deemed cancer-free. She still takes the pill tamoxifen every day as a preventative measure.

High on anesthesia, Mangakahia couldn’t truly comprehend her liberating news for a few hours. But now, as her hair starts to grow back and she strives to return to the court and lead her team to the Final Four and a national championship next season, Mangakahia approaches everything through a new lens. For example, she never truly understood the annual Play4Kay game, which helps raise money for cancer research, but loved wearing pink jerseys anyway. Now, everything has a new meaning and she’s figuring out the best way to create more awareness and be an advocate.

It helps, too, that Syracuse has been a huge support system for her, like in creating the #Tough4T campaign (her personality, number and nickname rolled into one hashtag) so anyone who wanted could follow her journey. While the team isn’t trying to turn Mangakahia into the story of their season, they do have pregame T-shirts bearing that logo.

Less than a month after surgery, Mangakahia was back playing pickup. She guesses she won’t be able to practice with her team again until probably sometime after this season ends in the spring. She’ll apply for a medical waiver from the NCAA to get a year of eligibility back for the 2020-21 season. But she’s still very much involved with the program, sitting on the bench next to Hillsman in an assistant type of role charting offensive efficiency. “I think that’s actually going to grow her IQ and grow the game for her,” Hillsman says.

Her sights are still set on the WNBA and there’s no indication that’s not an unattainable goal anymore. It’s not like Mangakahia is the first athlete to come back and play after cancer. Her peer Andrew Jones at Texas is currently second on his team in scoring (11.8 points per game) after missing most of last season while undergoing treatments for leukemia.

“I will play harder,” Mangakahia says, eyeing her return to the court next year. “You know how some people say that but don’t really mean it? Well, I feel like that’s realistic for me.”