Mackenzie Dougherty probably is not a name that you are immediately familiar with — unless that is, you, like her, are part of the community of incredibly brave women (and men) fighting breast cancer.
As the PR director for the national retail brand Gap, she has worked throughout most of her now 18-month-long battle with triple negative breast cancer. In that time she has undergone a double mastectomy, fertility treatments, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, all while sharing her journey online. She is also the face of Gap’s latest campaign in partnership with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) for breast cancer awareness month, which will donate 10 percent of all regular priced bra sales (including sports bras) from Sept. 29 through Oct. 19 while supplies last, up to $100,000 maximum donation to support breast cancer research and awareness through BCRF.
On her blog and Instagram, @iforgotihavecancer, Dougherty shares intimate details about the process and the anxieties surrounding her cancer journey, something she says was initially done for several reasons: First, for herself as a form of therapy. Second, to keep friends and family informed of not only her medical journey, but how she was feeling emotionally as well. And third, to relate to and help others.
"Writing and putting this blog together and even on social media was a way for my friends to know how I was feeling and saying things that I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing directly with them. Which is crazy because I felt more comfortable sharing it with a broader range of people, but it was just a nice way to kind of get it all out there," she tells Romper by phone.
“The most rewarding part, or what I call the silver lining of all of this, is all of the amazing women that I’ve met over Instagram that are in various stages of the journey, and it’s nice when we send each other messages of encouragement and a virtual fist pump," she says. "So it’s been really nice to create this community online and meet these women and follow their journey and for us to be able to really encourage each other and go to each other for help.” When we spoke, Dougherty was gearing up to meet with a 22-year-old woman fighting ovarian cancer for brunch who she says she met through social media before realizing that they have a mutual friend. She is not only talking the talk online, but she’s actually walking the walk alongside others struggling in real life as well, which is why she is the ideal person to represent Gap in their quest to support the BCRF.
Weaving in personal stories on her blog about tough topics — like making decisions about her fertility when she first received the news that she was a carrier of the BRCA1 mutation and grappling with going through the egg retrieval process — is part of how Dougherty says she relates to others during this time. "There’s this crazy circular journey in your head. And I realized that there are definitely a lot of other women who are feeling this and then on top of that, I’m at a stage in my life where a lot of my friends are having their own fertility issues and we’re talking about that."
She says that hearing about her friends' miscarriages, and that they were only learning the stories of other women’s struggles after sharing their own, helped solidify her choice to share such personal details online. "That kind of really hit me where I was like 'OK, if my friends who are trying to have babies are feeling this way, there’s definitely other women in my cancer community and in my BRCA1 community who must really be having the same anxiety that’s keeping them up at night that I am. There's really only one way to get through this and that's to be honest.'"
Writing about depression is something she says she was "really worried" about and said that it was one topic she felt more vulnerable about than others. "I'm talking about constipation and that's OK, but talking about being depressed is something that people really can relate to, but it's also something you want to be respectful of others," she says. "But at the same time I’m always telling my friends 'you need to be honest about mental health.'"
Dougherty tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation in 2015. Her paternal grandmother died from breast cancer at a young age, and her father was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation as well, which led her to get tested. She initially wanted to get a preventative mastectomy, but made the decision instead to do screenings every six months instead. It was at one of these regular screenings that her cancer was found, but this particular screening was one she almost did not attend, having initially been scheduled for the day after her father died from lung cancer.
"I wasn’t even going to do it. I thought, 'You know what, nothing else bad can happen. I’m already at my rock bottom. There's no way I could have an issue right now. I’m not going.' And luckily this voice in my head was like, ‘No, reschedule it.’ So I rescheduled it for March 4, which was my late brother's birthday. And that morning there was actually a snow storm and once again I was like, 'I'm not gonna go. There's no way I need to go. I’m not going to do it.' And there was this voice in my head, I went, and thank God I did," she explains. "At the end of the day, I feel very lucky that I have been so diligent and that I knew I needed to take care of myself and that I knew there was a chance for it."
Knowing that early detection was key in her diagnosis, Dougherty is a huge proponent of people with a family history getting tested for the BRCA mutations. "I very strongly encourage people if they have a history to get tested because really screening is just so important, and it's the only way to be able to protect yourself in that way," she says.
After her diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy, she took leave from work to allow her body to recover. After that, Dougherty made the decision to return to work during her chemotherapy treatments. She says that her “incredibly supportive” coworkers made that possible. "I thought about it long and hard and talked about it with my boss and with my coworkers and realized I can do this," she explains. "I can do every other week chemo and be out of the office on Thursday and Friday. I’ll be connected as I need to and then I’ll work those alternating weeks as much as I can.”
She explains that some days post-treatment she would go into work and her boss would notice that she wasn’t doing well and ask if she wanted to go home, but that if she went home, she knew she would just be feeling "depressed" and "sad" alone instead of being surrounded by her support system at work and keeping her brain working. “The brain fog that I went through I would say was horrible, but at the same time if I wasn’t working during that, it would’ve been even worse because I needed to exercise my brain as much as I could.”
After working with Kara Skaflestad from the Fighting Pretty organization in Gap’s breast cancer awareness campaign previously, Dougherty calls being the face of this year’s campaign a "full circle moment" going from being the person pitching this type of campaign to the person in the campaign this year. "I was so flattered that the team asked me to do it and I felt like this is such a cool opportunity, why not? My oncologist actually works with BCRF for her research so it also feels like a really great opportunity to just be aligned with BCRF and everything they do," she explains. "I always had a soft spot with them given my grandmother and my own genetic mutation and everything like that before this, but now it obviously really pulls at my heartstrings even more. And it’s really exciting."
The powerful images of Dougherty will be part of Gap's national campaign to support the BCRF that runs Sept. 29 through Oct. 19. “Did I ever think that if I was going to be shot for something it would be with my bald head and without a shirt on? No,” she says with a laugh. “But oddly enough I feel the most naked I’ve ever felt and I feel, probably in a way, the most beautiful because there's not really much that can hide what's going on, so I feel very raw in that sense. And this is the strongest I’ve ever been in my life, so I really hope that comes through in the images. It's just about being vulnerable and trying to put it out there and create awareness around breast cancer and around what we can do to help support those who are fighting the fight.”