Teenage cancer survivor tells all in Fringe show

Shannon Mackenzie with Kylie Minogue
Shannon Mackenzie with Kylie Minogue
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WRITING and performing your own solo show at the Fringe when you’re just 19 might be daunting – but not if you’ve beaten cancer twice.

Shannon Mackenzie, a drama student at Napier and Queen Margaret universities, has taken her struggle with leukaemia and turned it into a performance piece.

The self-penned production Let’s Leuk at Cancer has been taking audiences on her journey with the disease, from first diagnosis at the age of 12 to a life-saving bone marrow transplant – received from younger brother Ross – and her fight back to health.

In the show, Shannon, from Wallyford, wears a surgical gown and the Take That T-shirt she wore during her lengthy hospital stays.

And she has drawn on diaries she kept at the time to remind her of the physical and emotional rollercoaster she was on battling acute myeloid leukaemia.

“Cancer is a difficult issue for people, I thought it might be enlightening to hear about it from a young person who’s been through it – and I’ve tried to make it humorous. Writing it has made me think a lot more about what I went through.

“Having cancer is a huge culture shock. I used to cry if I had to take Piriton – now after chemo and a bone marrow transplant I can deal with anything,” she says.

Shannon was first diagnosed with leukaemia when she was 12 and had just started high school.

“I had lost my appetite and I’d come home from school and go straight to bed because I was so tired and not get up until I had to go back to school the next day.

“It was unusual as I was active – I did karate and football and drama but had no energy at all.

“I kept going back and forth to the Sick Kids hospital and they kept taking more and more blood to test. Eventually, on Christmas Eve eight years ago, they told my parents I needed a bone marrow biopsy to find out what was going on.

“My parents didn’t tell me to try and protect me so I had Christmas Day at home. I remember my aunt arriving at the house and my mum bursting into tears – my assumption was she was crying because my aunt’s dog had just died. I really had no idea.

“In fact, it wasn’t until I went back into hospital on Boxing Day and two people on the ward asked, ‘oh, what kind of cancer do you have?’, like it was a club. I was stunned. I knew cancer was something people died of, I just felt a bit unwell.” 
Six months of chemotherapy followed and afterwards life went back to normal. But by the next December the cancer was back.

“It was Christmas time, of course, and I was in a hotel swimming pool in Glasgow and suddenly had a nosebleed – it’s one of the signs. I had a scheduled check-up the following week and when we never heard the results quickly we knew something was wrong.

“I was back on chemotherapy and knew I needed a bone marrow transplant. I was incredibly lucky that my brother Ross was a match – he was only eight. It was such a huge thing for him to do. Even now I have to say ‘you saved my life, I’m eternally grateful’ like the aliens from Toy Story.”

Glasgow’s Yorkhill hospital carried out the transplant, which she admits was a horrendous experience. “It was the worst I ever felt. It was horrible.”

In recovery, however, she says she made lots of friends – other teenagers going through the same thing. She also spent four days on a yacht on the Solent thanks to a course run by the Ellen MacArthur Trust, spending time with the award-winning sailor.

In 2011, she went backstage to meet Kylie Minogue after her show at the SECC.

She had also started attending craft workshops run by Edinburgh charity It’s Good 2 Give – which had already been supporting her parents – and she decided that when she was well she wanted to help the charity.

Now the acting student is an ambassador for the charity and has hosted large fundraising fashion shows and even had her face plastered on the side of a Lothians bus to give something back.

“It is odd that cancer has given me these opportunities which otherwise might never have happened.” she admits.

- Let’s Leuk at Cancer is on at Silk Nightclub, King’s Stables Road, tonight at 8.15pm. Entry is free.