‘I thought about what I could do, just in case I died’
Traumatic events, by definition, overwhelm our ability to cope.
But Gold Coast businesswoman Courtney Mangan says cancer has not defeated her but ignited a fire within.
"I don't know what it was about hearing I had stage four cancer and I could die that changed the game," the 33-year-old says.
"Before cancer, I had a Louis Vuitton bag in one hand, pina colada in the other and thought my life was sorted, but I was just coasting. I wasn't truly passionate about anything, but my cancer diagnosis woke me up.
"I realised I always had the fire inside and I needed to stop dancing in the dark."
Courtney, the co-owner of brand agency Spin & Co and podcasting network The Spin Studio, is a born and bred Gold Coaster and the creative brain behind some Australia's biggest social accounts.
However, beyond her work ethic and contagious smile lies an inspirational journey with skin cancer.
In February 2017, just before her 30th birthday, Courtney found a suspicious mole on her right shoulder.
"People were saying I should get it checked out but I was scared, thinking deep down it could be something," the Griffith University alumni says.
"My dad's had melanomas and my uncle passed away from melanoma.
"I put off going to the doctor for a while and then eventually when I did, I was told it was nothing. I then went to another doctor and I was told I was fine."
Upon seeking a final opinion, a level 4 melanoma was detected and Courtney underwent surgery. From the on, she had skin checks every three months and regular visits to her surgical team in Brisbane.
But in December 2019, Courtney's life came crashing down when she was told a seemingly insignificant lump on her arm was aggressive stage 4 cancer. She was told she had an 18 per cent chance of survival.
"When I found out, people said I should go and see a therapist because I might break down," she says.
"But I did the opposite. I only cried when I told people because I was worried about their emotions.
"When I was alone, I wasn't that upset but just taking stock of my life. I was thinking about all the things I hadn't done and how I could do them - just in case I died.
"I started putting together my bucket list, making changes and working out what I was unhappy with. I didn't want this to be the end and I didn't do the things I wanted to do.
"It wasn't like I wanted to party more or travel - it was the little things.
"I wanted to do things that brought me joy and work out what I was passionate about.
"Before cancer I was telling myself a narrative of why I couldn't do things and was worried about what other people thought. It was something I had been doing for years.
"Around my 30th birthday, I started making changes and it was a slow progression but when I got my diagnosis in 2019 - it went up a notch.
"Just like Dolly Parton says, find out who you are and do it on purpose. That is what I am trying to do."
Months later, Courtney's diagnosis was downgraded to stage 3B cancer.
But five years ago, she may have faced a death sentence as there was no treatment available in Australia.
After surgery and commencing targeted immunotherapy, her scans thankfully came back clear.
Courtney's immunotherapy treatment will continue every fortnight until February 2021, and despite freezing her eggs she will be unable to fall pregnant in the next five years until doctors give her the all clear.
"I may not have any cancer in my system at the moment but the truth is for five years and maybe for the rest of my life this will be hanging over my head," she says.
"I have many real life friends and melanoma buddies I connected with online that have gone for their four-year check up and found out the cancer was back.
"So I have to make sure I'm always vigilant about sun safety and getting my tests and checks.
"Melanoma is a long road to recovery so I'm just taking it one day at a time, and do what I can to stay in a positive mindset, because thinking about the 'what if's' can be a dark place for the mind to go."
Since her diagnosis in 2019, Courtney has been documenting the raw highs and lows of her cancer journey on Instagram.
When asked why, Courtney muses, "Upon my diagnosis, I felt helpless. I thought if I shared it with others, they might get their skin checked, learn about their body and educate their friends.
One Australian dies every five hours from melanoma and most commonly affects 15 to 39 year-old Australians.
Therefore, the young Gold Coast woman is a big advocate for sun safety.
Courtney says sunscreen is cool and her favourite brand is Ultraviollette because it's SPF50 and great with makeup.
From experience, watching Courtney flaunt her fearlessly authentic self to the world has made me feel safe to so too.
Thousands of her followers agree with me, so much so Courtney decided to launch a podcast called "She Was The Fire".
The 40-minute episodes, released each Tuesday on Spotify and Apple, is an extension of her Instagram and is a go to guide for every 20, 30 or 40-something year old woman on how to live their best damn life.
Episodes cover advice and hacks on how to ignite your fire, own your crown, organise your schedule, meditate and practice gratefulness.
Once a month, she has an episode called the "The Court Report", which covers recommendations for podcasts, TV shows, music, food, products and more.
"Over the past 12 months I've lost 45 kilograms, started a new business, found out I had cancer, lost a family member to cancer, completely changed the way I managed my business, beat cancer and started to completely rewire the way I think," Courtney says.
"I've loved podcasts for the last six years.
"I produced podcasts with my brother, I produce podcasts for other people and my business is about working for my clients - but it has never been for me.
"Through this whole process, I realised I needed to do something for myself and something to make me happy. I am glad I did."
Courtney says the title of the podcast was inspired by her thirst for growth and her favourite quotes about igniting the fire within.
"I grew up with a great life, a great family and the normal hardship that people go through," she says.
"But I never faced anything really traumatic. It's easy to think you are strong until you have to be.
"This process showed me that I didn't have to go and find my fire or create it.
"It was already there and I just had to remind myself - I want other people to realise that too.
"Also, my star sign is fire and I have red hair, so I think my podcast had to be something about fire."
Since Courtney has been a little girl, she has idolised American talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
"When I was 16, all my friends had wedding Pinterest boards and were seeking a life with the white picket fence," the 2003 All Saints Anglican College graduate says.
"But I have never dreamt about what my wedding or kids would look like. I have always wanted to be a leader and inspire people."
In 1998 Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Gene Siskel asked Oprah "what do you know for sure" and since then she has shared with her audience countless lessons that she has learned to help form what she knows for sure.
Courtney says the five things she knows for sure are knowledge is power; you have to tell people what you need, don't expect them to know; you can't control someone else's behaviour, you can only control your reaction; there is always time, you just need to prioritise; and nothing changes, if nothing changes.
"It has been the most difficult 12 months of my life, but what I have learnt during that time has meant I have become more myself than I have ever been," she says.
Courtney tells me, this is also partly thanks to the support from her brother Sam Mangan, who owns and runs Spin & Co and The Spin Studio alongside her.
"Even though he is younger than me, I've always admired him," she says
"He has been an inspiration to help me grow personally and professionally."
If Courtney could turn back time, she would tell her younger insecure self to stop trying to be perfect for everyone else because you are not living your life.
"Put your crown on, wear it with confidence, hold your head high, and be who you are and own it," she says.
"Stop dancing in the dark, start your fire and ignite your spark."
Originally published as 'I thought about what I could do, just in case I died'