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Syracuse star Tiana Mangakahia is thriving on the court after beating breast cancer

The Orange face NC State in a Play4Kay game to raise money for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Women’s college basketball teams across the country are suiting up in pink uniforms for Play4Kay, the annual fundraiser for cancer inspired by the life and death of former NC State coach Kay Yow. This year Play4Kay means a bit more to Syracuse guard Tiana Mangakahia, who overcame breast cancer to return to the court this season.

Mangakahia was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 18th, 2019, and sat out last season as she underwent several rounds of chemotherapy treatments and a double mastectomy. Now cancer-free, Mangakahia is averaging double-figures in scoring while leading Syracuse in assists to become one of the most inspiring stories in college hoops this season.

Mangakahia’s diagnosis interrupted her rising college stardom

The 2019-2020 season was supposed to be a big one for Mangakahia as she began her senior year. As a junior, she had led the team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and assists (8.4 per game) while being named First Team All-ACC and an All-American honorable mention.

Mangakahia’s life and career changed before the season when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, also known as invasive ductal carcinoma.

Healthy, 24-years young, and with no history of breast cancer in her family, Mangakahia was shocked. The lump she had noticed on her breast weeks before was the cause of it all.

“I was freaked out. I never thought this would happen to me,” she said.

The news weighed even more heavily on her as she called her parents in Brisbane, Australia. From 9,503 miles away, they grieved together, but then got to work trying to beat cancer.

Mangakahia lived her life while fighting cancer

Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman got Mangakahia and her family in contact with Dr. Jeffrey Kirshner at St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Health Center in Syracuse, New York. Dr. Kirshner is a highly regarded oncologist and helped Mangakahia and her family navigate the situation, providing options that would put Tiana in the best position to beat cancer.

Her family and close friends synced their schedules and booked flights to ensure that she always had someone present during her chemo treatments, but Mangakahia wasn’t going to fight cancer laying down. She was going to live her life as she was fighting for it.

During her treatments, Mangakahia still attended class. She went to sporting events, hung out with friends, and even played pickup between her treatments when she had the energy. She lived.

Mangakahia was authentically herself. She admits that losing her hair was the most challenging part, but her choice to show up fully herself, bald and without wigs, weaves, or cover ups, was a personal decision.

“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.”

Life after beating cancer

After a five-hour surgery on Nov. 6, 2019 to remove her cancerous tumor, Mangakahia was pronounced cancer-free. The battle for her health and life was over.

She was back shooting and playing pick up less than a month after surgery.

Her hard work paid off. This season she is averaging 10.8 points and 7.7 assists per game.

On Feb. 28, Mangakahia and the Syracuse Orange will take on NC State in their annual Play4Kay game. Teams can dedicate one game in their schedule to fundraising for Play4Kay and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund in memory of the late NC State women’s basketball coach who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and passed in 2009. The game has a whole new meaning for Mangakahia this year.

After this season, Mangakahia intends to turn pro with the goal of joining the WNBA. Whatever happens next on the court, Mangakahia has already won her most important battle.