Celebrity News

Anxiety, new love & letting go: Lorna’s taking back control

The radio star’s been overwhelmed by cancer, but now it’s her time to shine
Photography: Tony Nyberg

Eight years ago, Lorna Riley (formerly Subritzky) felt in the prime of her life. At 48, she had a happy family life, and had just embarked on a fabulous and exciting new career as the Days host at Coast FM. Little did she realise then just how drastically her life would change.

After two breast cancer diagnoses, radiation, chemotherapy, multiple surgeries – with more to come – and the death of her beloved brother Vernon all over the past three years, it would be easy to assume the 56-year-old radio presenter had lost at least some of the eternal optimism she called her “superpower” in her last chat with the Weekly.

When treatment for her second breast cancer diagnosis was completed early last year, Lorna underwent genetic testing. This revealed she was carrying the BRCA2 gene, meaning she had an elevated risk of developing ovarian cancer.

She underwent a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy – the surgical removal of both ovaries and both fallopian tubes last April – and will also undergo a bilateral double mastectomy next year as per doctor’s orders. As well, she’ll be taking the hormone modulator Tamoxifen for the next 10 years to lower her risk of the breast cancer reoccurring.

It’s a lot, by anyone’s standards. But while the hard knocks have undoubtedly left their mark, the broadcaster says she may have been down but she’s most definitely not out.

“I call cancer my ‘shadow’ – once you’ve seen it, it’s always with you,” tells Lorna, who now lives in a rented home with her daughters Lucy, 23, and Zoe, 14, and Lucy’s 22-month-old daughter Kaia. She also has a son, Max, 25. “When you get to a certain age, though, there’s always baggage of some sort.”

To hear Lorna chat happily on air at Coast FM, it’s hard to believe there could be anything remiss. But one unexpected part of the “shadow” that came to the fore was a sudden onset of anxiety and depression.

“I’ve never felt anxious before and it was a pretty unwelcome development,” she admits. “Out of the blue, I suddenly started worrying about things that aren’t in my control. I try not to dwell on problems if I can, but there’s no doubt that I’ve changed hugely as a person as a result of my experiences.

In Mykonos with daughter Lucy in 2023.

“There are still plenty of positives. I love my work, and they were so supportive and helpful when I was going through treatment. I also have a fantastic group of family and friends who I know I can rely on when I need them. My first husband and his partner even came with me to chemo a few times – we’re good friends these days. I’m very lucky that my personality is wired to always see the good rather than the bad, but the anxiety is always there now.”

Unsurprisingly, Lorna gets particularly uneasy when she has to go for scans – she is monitored by oncologists every six months, and has annual mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs – the latest of which she received the all-clear for just a couple of weeks ago.

“The anxiety – I call it my ‘scanxiety’ – really peaks in the lead-up to the MRIs and mammograms. I’m very aware that it won’t take much to put me back into chemotherapy, which I found really hard.

“But a lot of the time, it’s silly things that set me off – mundane, ordinary situations. I’ll be sitting in traffic and suddenly feel anxious. Sometimes, I don’t even know what it is that I’m feeling anxious about.

“And I’ve started to feel it when I travel, which is so strange because I love travelling and I’ve done loads of it, so it makes no sense that I’m suddenly fretting about it now.”

So a few weeks ago, Lorna took her doctor’s advice and started taking mood stabilisers.

“It was a bit of a shock to me that I needed mood stabilisers. We all think we should be able to handle anxiety, right?” she muses. “I thought, ‘I’ve had cancer, I’ve lost all my hair, I’ve survived my brother dying and the end of my marriage – why can’t I cope now?’

Undergoing chemo with her lucky charm.

“It was a bit of a process learning to accept that mood stabilisers would help me, but even though I’ve only been taking them for a few weeks, I’m starting to feel a lot better. I’m choosing to see taking medication that helps me as a positive thing because it means I’m taking control of how I feel.

“I’m maturing and life’s experiences have compounded to bring me to where I am. I’m in my mid-fifties and next birthday I’ll probably have to start saying I’m in my ‘late fifties.’ It got me thinking about how I want to spend the rest of my life. And I don’t want to spend it worrying.”

Lorna has also started finding other ways of keeping her anxiety in check, including deep breathing, calming exercises and running through mantras in her head when she feels that all-too-familiar unease coming on. She’s also looking after her physical health more.

“I’m probably the fittest and healthiest I’ve been in decades!” she laughs. “I watch what I eat and I love reformer Pilates. The way I see it, the treatment has dealt with the cancer, but I must do my part when it comes to keeping myself healthy.”

And another little ray of sunshine in Lorna’s life is a relationship that began in August last year, after she dipped her toe into the world of online dating. The pair have a mutual love of the sea and have children of similar ages. They make a good match, but Lorna is coy about saying too much.

On Christmas Day 2023 with son Max and daughter Zoe. “I want to buy a house for Zoe and me soon,” says Lorna.

“Using a dating app was something new for me and if I had to, I’d do it again – although I hope I don’t! After my marriage to Steve [Subritzky] ended at the end of 2021, I wanted to meet someone else – I’m a born romantic – but at this age, it’s hard to meet people.”

After just four other dates, she matched with Alan on the dating app Hinge.

“He is someone special, but we are taking it slowly and carefully,” she shares. “We have a lot in common and I do really like him. It was strange meeting online – dating now is different from dating in my twenties! We both have a lot more baggage and, of course, I have a lot of physical and emotional scars from my cancer journey. When you have or have had cancer, it doesn’t just affect you – it affects everyone going through it with you because it’s hard to see someone you love suffer. If I’m going to have a partner, they need to be able to cope with it too. Alan does that and he makes me happy.”

And so, for now, does living with her girls.

“Lucy, Zoe and I all have the same shoe size, which is very handy! They’re family, but they’re also like flatmates. With three of us, there’s always two against one when we argue, but we get on pretty well.”

But with Lucy studying to be a primary school teacher, Lorna knows her living situation will change soon.

“I love having my wee granddaughter Kaia close, but the time is coming for Lucy to do her own thing, and I want to buy a house for Zoe and me soon,” she explains. “I love Auckland’s North Shore with all its pretty spots and beaches, so I’ll definitely stay there.”

With beach baby granddaughter Kaia.

And now she’s getting the anxiety more under control, Lorna’s looking forward to hopping on a plane again.

“I have an amazing trip to America coming up, which I’m so looking forward to,” she enthuses. “I’m going to Nashville and New Orleans, which of course are the birthplaces of blues and
rock music.

“I’m also taking some Coast listeners to the Gold Coast soon, which I’m excited about.”

Also on the travel wishlist is a trip back to the UK, where she was born.

“We moved to New Zealand when I was six and I’ve never been back to England, so this feels a bit like a pilgrimage.”

With plenty of plans for the future, Lorna is slowly but surely beginning to feel like herself again – albeit a new version. But whatever the future holds, she’s all in.

“My dad always tells me you need three things to be happy: have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to,” she says. “There will always be fear, but I try to remember that with every shadow, there’s also sunlight.”

Related stories