LONG READ

Heather MacRae: Facing cancer and fighting back

Heather Mac Rae 1

At 6pm on Thursday 7 March this year, Heather MacRae was inflating balloons.

She knows because that’s when her phone rang and flipped her life upside down. On the other end of the line was her doctor. She had the results of tests MacRae had recently undergone and the news wasn’t good.

Cancer.

The word hung in the air as a torrent of emotions and questions came flooding forward.  Why? How? What? Fear. Shock. Disbelief. Why me? How can this be happening? What now? Suddenly, amidst the chaos and confusion, reality dropped its anchor. The following morning, MacRae was due to host a beginner’s golf day for women and girls at Stirling Golf Club. Over 30 of them had signed up. She couldn’t let them down and there was still so much to do before then.

Cancer would have to wait.

The day went ahead and was a huge success, so much so that, to this day, many who attended have become fully-fledged, bone fide golfers.

That night, an exhausted MacRae sat back and reflected. She thought of the women and girls whose journey she had just started, and of the altogether different one that lay ahead of her.

Sleep came soon. The next day, the fight began

• • •

Fast-forward six months and MacRae is at Gleneagles. It’s the eve of the Solheim Cup. Under different circumstances, she might have been part of Catriona Matthew’s European team.

What a story that would have been. A golfer born in Dunblane, just a dozen miles down the A9 from where the match was taking place, playing in the biggest event in her game? Fairytale stuff.

But she’s not thinking about that. The subject actually never comes up. After the trials and tribulations of the last six months, MacRae’s just happy to be here to watch the action, never mind be part of it.

“I just feel high on life,” she beams. “When you go from being at the bottom of your cage and not able to do anything to being back to doing a lot of stuff – obviously not quite 100% but closer to it – it’s a great feeling.

“I feel like I’m just smiling all the time and running around trying to make up for the summer that I missed.

Heather Mac Rae 3

“Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when I’ve felt pretty low but I’m a pretty positive person generally and I think all this has made me more appreciative of what I have. Focus on the good stuff, clear out the bad. Just smile, basically.

“Yeah, I feel good.”

MacRae was diagnosed with cervical cancer. This year, around 3,200 other women in the UK will receive the same devastating news. That’s roughly nine per day. It’s most common amongst females aged 25 to 29 and there are around 870 cervical cancer deaths in the UK every year. 

There is, though, a silver lining. A very significant silver lining. Survival rates are improving and, in fact, have increased in the UK over the last forty years. In the 1970s, almost half of women diagnosed with cervical cancer survived their disease beyond ten years. Now, it’s almost two-thirds.

Cancer Research UK projects that, by 2035, the mortality rate for cervical cancer will fall by 7% as prevention and treatment become more and more sophisticated.

In MacRae’s case, the issue only came to light after a smear test in January.

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“It was a little bit late because I’d been living in Portugal but I’d had several of them before,” she says. “It wasn’t like I’d never been and, you know, I was feeling fitter than ever. I was training six times a week in the gym, working hard on my game. There wasn’t any reason to think there was anything wrong.”

She subsequently received a letter to say that the results of the test had shown up some abnormalities. Even then, MacRae wasn’t particularly concerned. “I started to look up what it might be and I managed to convince myself that it was fine. Everything I found said that this type of cancer normally takes ten to fifteen years to develop so I figured there was no way that’s what it could be because I had been for a screening fairly recently.”

An appointment was scheduled for March 1. That’s when the mood started to change.

“It was just little things that they were saying that made me think, ‘Okay, this doesn’t sound good’. I asked the doctor straight out. I said, ‘Do I have cancer?’ She said, ‘We don’t know but there are things to suggest that’s what it could be.’ She disappeared for a while to go speak to a consultant and that’s when it started to really hit home.

“That was probably the worst day.”

Compounding matters, MacRae had gone to the appointment alone. “When I came out, my head was in a complete spin. I got lost trying to find my car. Then, I couldn’t get out of the car park. I was going in circles.”

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Whilst she awaited the results of further results, she threw herself back into her coaching work and, in the main, preparing to host her ‘We Love Golf’ day.

“Had I not had that day, everything might have been different because I might just have sat and thought, ‘Okay what’s actually going on here’. I get such a buzz out of helping people get into golf and like it. I had something to keep looking forward to. But yeah, thinking back now, I really don’t know how I did that day.”

Not least because she had received her diagnosis just a matter of hours before the first of her newcomers checked-in at Stirling.

“My doctor had wanted me to make an appointment to come back in to get the results but I said that I had too much on and so I asked them to phone me with the results instead. Like I say, I didn’t think it was going to be bad news. So, she phoned me on the Thursday night and, well… yeah.”

Immediately, the wheels of recovery started to spin. MacRae was booked in for surgery at the end of March. At first, the specialists believed it would be a straightforward procedure as the initial tests had revealed only a small trace of cancerous tissue. However, a pre-op MRI scan showed something on her lymph nodes.

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They were confident she wouldn’t need a hysterectomy but, to be sure they had removed all traces of cancer, they instructed a PET scan. A positron emission tomography scan, to give it its full name, is an imaging test that allows doctors to check for diseases in your body. It uses a special dye containing radioactive tracers that, quite literally, light up diseased areas in your body. That took place on the Wednesday before the Easter weekend. MacRae was sent home and told she would probably get the results by the Friday of that week.

“It’s a strange thing because the people who carried out the PET scan would have known there and then just how bad it was but the results have to come from your consultant,” she says. “So, Friday came and went. Nothing. Nothing again over the weekend. Nothing on Monday because it was Easter Monday.

“On the Tuesday, I went down to The Renaissance in the morning to play golf just to take my mind off it all. Between going in to the clubhouse to check in and coming back out to my car, I’d had a missed call from the hospital.”

She called back and was told to make an appointment to go in and see them.

“At that point, my heart sank. Up to that point, they hadn’t handled anything that way. They’d always just told me what was going on over the phone. Now, suddenly, they wanted me to go in. I figured that had to mean it wasn’t good news.”

With her brother and sister for support, MacRae went to see her doctors the very next day.

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“Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. They said I would still require surgery but not a hysterectomy. The next part was to go down to Glasgow to meet the surgeon a couple of weeks later. By that point, things had changed and they said that I did, in fact, require a hysterectomy.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a hysterectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the womb. Besides anything else, it means not being able to have children.

“I’m 36 but I’m on my own and suddenly I was faced with this decision about having kids,” she said. “At the time, I just wanted to get myself better. I have amazing nieces and nephews who will happily come for sleepovers whenever I need them and then I can hand them back.

“You just want to get yourself fit and healthy. That’s the priority. I love life, I love what I do and I just want to be healthy and back to normal as soon as possible. I think in everything that you do, so long as you make the right decisions for the right reasons, you’re not going to look back and regret it. And I’m sure I won’t. If you don’t have your health you’ve got nothing, right?”

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The operation took place in mid-June, a matter of days after MacRae remarkably won the Women’s PGA Championship for the second time. She was sidelined for almost two months whilst she recovered at home. Two long months for somebody as active as she is.

“At the start, when you find out, everybody tells you to stay positive and you think how is that even possible? But I remember a friend of mine, right at the very outset, said that if it even makes two or three per cent’s worth of a difference, then it had to be worth it as it’s the sum of a lot of little differences that add up to a big difference.

“Telling friends and family and seeing their faces was harder than being told the news myself. It’s just something that you don’t think is ever going to happen to you. But the support I’ve had has been amazing.”

Fortunately, MacRae appears to be well down the road to recovery. She’s well aware of the potential for bumps and potholes along the way but, for now, things are looking good.

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“My doctors are happy but they’re staying vigilant,” she says. “They keep you on their radar for five years, so I’ll have check-ups every three to six months and, hopefully, it’s all good from here.”

Slowly but surely, she’s also getting back out on the course, too. Her first competitive event was the PGA Fourball Championship at Farleigh Golf Club at the end of August where she partnered former European Tour pro Craig Lee.

“You’d think everything I’ve been through would have changed how I feel about golf but when I played there, I was still so pissed off after bad shots,” she laughs. “I hadn’t played more than nine holes since my surgery and, when they announced me on the first tee, I was just so excited. I was shaking with adrenaline and I knew that one of two things was going to happen: I was either going to top it or rip it. In the end, I ripped it and went out and made eight birdies.

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“The following day, I made six and Craig made something like ten or 11. It got to the last hole and, if I made birdie, we’d have shot 58. As it turned out, I made bogey and I was annoyed for the rest of the day. But, you know, I’m kind of glad because that’s the way I’ve always been and I’m not prepared to let cancer take any more from me than it already has.”

She has since played in the Scottish PGA Championship at Downfield and, before the year is out, will represent GB&I in the first-ever Women’s PGA Cup in Texas. That, she says, was her number one goal at the start of what has turned out to be a far more difficult year than expected.

“It’s funny sitting here now and looking back,” she smiles. “It kind of feels like it didn’t really happen, which is strange because, when you’re in the middle of it, it feels like time stands still. It’s hard to process. All I know is that, touch wood, I’m getting better all the time.”

• For more information on cervical cancer, contact Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity. Visit jostrust.org.uk or call 0808 802 8000.

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