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Toni Street: 'Last year was the hardest I've ever had'

Recently, broadcaster Toni Street revealed her private fight with a dangerous autoimmune disease. She speaks to NEXT about the decision that dramatically affected her health.

It’s not easy to rattle television presenter Toni Street.

The Seven Sharp host has risen through the ranks at TVNZ to become one of the nation’s most popular broadcasters – and she’s achieved this with humour, positivity, and an up-for-anything attitude.

But sometimes life throws a curve ball.

For Street, that arrived in the form of a life-threatening illness that has forced her to question every move she makes.

From fertility treatment to fasting, the star admits she’s “flying blind” when it comes to safeguarding her future, but is determined to do whatever it takes.

It was October last year when Street decided it was time to admit that all was not well in her world.

Viewers had noticed her weight gain and wondered if she might be pregnant with baby number three. But the truth was not so joyful.

Street revealed she had been diagnosed with the life-threatening autoimmune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome, which was attacking her organs.

She’d already had her gallbladder removed and was on a cocktail of intravenous steroid infusions and immune-suppressing drugs to keep it from damaging anything else.

Ever the optimist, she was hopeful the drugs would stop the disease in its tracks.

However, a few weeks before Christmas, she got the news she’d been quietly dreading. A blood test showed the mum-of-two’s liver was now under attack.

She would need to start chemotherapy, and quickly.

Street’s first thought was not for herself, but for her future children. Before starting the chemo, she quickly had fertility treatment so she could freeze her healthy eggs. It was a whirlwind of injections and tests, doctors and decision making.

But Street’s disease is an unpredictable one and, for once, that worked in her favour.

“I had prepared myself for the chemo, asked all the questions,” says Street when we meet at her home on Auckland’s North Shore.

“I knew I wasn’t going to lose my hair but I would probably get nauseous. They were about to start me on the chemotherapy and they did one last test. That’s when they said, ‘Actually, your liver is settled so we don’t need to do the chemo.’ And since that point I’ve been the best I’ve been since I got diagnosed with this thing. It was very unusual, and they can’t explain it. But we were very lucky.”

Finding the positive
She says it’s possible it was the high-dose steroids that were aggravating her liver, and that cutting back on them to have fertility treatment was the reason she got better – but no one really knows for sure.

What she does know is she no longer has to take as much of the drugs that play havoc with her mood and her weight.

In short, she’s getting better. If you believe in Christmas miracles, here’s your poster girl.

Curled up in an armchair in her chic, sunny lounge, the 32-year-old looks like a new woman.

She’s lightly tanned from a summer break at the beach with her husband, event planner Matt France, and daughters Juliette, three, and Mackenzie, 11 months, boogie boarding and going for long walks.

She’s lost what she dubbed her “moon face”, a puffiness that would come and go according to her steroid timetable (“Which is a delight when you’re on TV,” she notes drily).

Wearing a fitted black skirt and a white T-shirt, it’s clear her weight is returning to normal. Most importantly, she’s starting to feel like herself again.“You don’t realise how hard it is until you’re out, but the fog is starting to lift. I’m getting some clarity back, and a bit of control. I’m not in remission – yet,” she adds.

“But I hope to be by the end of this year.”

If you didn’t know what was happening to Street, you wouldn’t pick it from meeting her.

Like any other mum, she’s glad for a chance to sit down after a busy morning with her three-year-old – “She’s a full-on toddler; asks a million questions a day” – and Mackenzie, her “cruisy baby”.

Besides, she doesn’t have it in her to wallow, or feel sorry for herself. But there were plenty of days when Street had to hide what was going on inside.

“I am a really positive person, but last year was the hardest I’ve ever had to work to try to stay upbeat,” she says frankly.

“For three or four days after the steroid injections I felt quite manic – it gives you quite high highs and quite low lows, and you don’t feel yourself. Some days I was in such a funk, I’d think, ‘Ugh, man, I can’t do anything to make myself feel better.’ I’ve never felt so mentally out of control, and that was kind of scary.”

At work to relax
It was one thing to feel in a funk at home, but fronting live current affairs five nights a week with opinionated co-host Mike Hosking leaves little room for a personal crisis.

Many wondered why Street would keep working in this situation, but she was adamant she needed to be there. Far from adding to her stress, she says Seven Sharp was a welcome distraction.

“Sometimes work is an easier option than being at home with kids when you’re not feeling great. At work, you only need to worry about yourself,” she says.

“Mike might tell you different. He might say, ‘She was weird last year’, and think the old Toni is back this year,” she laughs.

“But seriously, Mike has been amazing, because he didn’t change throughout. He wasn’t overly sympathetic; he’d still tease me and that was really, really good.”

Toni Street on the cover of the 2013 NEXT Body Issue; with *Seven Sharp* co-host Mike Hosking; and her daughters Juliette and Mackenzie.
Toni Street on the cover of the 2013 NEXT Body Issue; with Seven Sharp co-host Mike Hosking; and her daughters Juliette and Mackenzie.

Support stars
It wasn’t so easy to hide the way the steroids affected her body, with the ‘double hit’ of having an increased appetite and fluid retention. Street has always been happy with her curves; she once posed for the cover of this magazine wearing only shapewear.

But even she struggled with the rapid weight gain. Although she didn’t weigh herself, she says she made life tough for the TVNZ stylist, who didn’t know what size she’d be from week to week.

She Googled ‘side effects of steroids’, and learned that fat deposits, including on the tummy and back of the neck, were the norm.

As is the ‘moon face’ that caused her the most chagrin, as she couldn’t hide it with clever tailoring.

But she took comfort in the fact there was a reason for her weight gain – and plenty of other people telling her they’d experienced the same thing.

“I’m someone who has never been super-skinny anyway and I’m not paranoid about the way I look, but it is hard.

“There were some nights when I thought, ‘I wish I could just hide away today.’ But by and large, everyone’s been so supportive. And I’m probably through the worst of that.”

Street has received support from all corners: the public, her workmates and her family, who rallied to help look after the children while she was in and out of hospital.

But her biggest champion is her husband.

On the days Street arrived home from work worrying she’d looked a bit puffy on screen, he’d assure her it wasn’t too bad.

Like Street, he’s been reading up on autoimmune disease and working through the influx of emails about possible treatments (she says all advice is welcome, as she’s prepared to try anything to get, and stay, in remission).

For their sixth wedding anniversary in December, he gave her yoga sessions to help her relax more, much to her amusement.

In a final display of dedication, he’s now on the 5:2 fast diet with her.

Mystery symptoms
Street has turned to fasting for its twofold effect: weight loss and the potential to help her body heal.

Fasting is thought to reduce inflammation in the body, including helping with eczema and asthma, which are two of her symptoms.

She’s only just started the eating regime, so it’s too early to say how it’s going, except that she’s “drinking a lot of green tea”.

Meditation is another area she’s interested in.

“People have so many views on what fixes autoimmune disease, which can be overwhelming. But if something has worked for someone else, it can work for me.”

Street didn’t know it at the time, but her immune system first started shutting down on her six years ago, just before she got married.

Having always been very fit – she played representative netball and cricket, and won a cricket scholarship to Lincoln University – she was surprised when out of the blue she developed asthma and eczema.

“I had never had a whiff of asthma, never even got huffy, so it’s not like I was prone to it. And I’d never had sensitive skin, but suddenly I had huge cuts on my hands. So I started down the track of, ‘What am I allergic to?’ I got tested for everything and I was allergic to nothing. No grasses; they couldn’t find a thing. They said, ‘You’re not an allergic person, but you’re getting this allergic response and we don’t know why'.”

She now knows this is a textbook example of the onset of Churg-Strauss syndrome, a disease that has no cure.

The diagnosis
Blithely unaware of what was happening to her body, Street had her first serious incident five weeks after the birth of her first child Juliette in 2012.

Waking up with a stiff neck, she took a Voltaren and a Nurofen – medicine she’d taken safely many times before – and went into anaphylactic shock.

Vomiting and with her throat closing up, she was rushed by ambulance to hospital.

Again, it was unusual, but she recovered.

Street’s ongoing allergies resulted in nasal surgery early last year, but it wasn’t until her gallbladder broke down just six weeks after Mackenzie’s birth that doctors started piecing together the puzzle.

“When you’re pregnant, your immune system suppresses completely so it doesn’t attack your baby,” explains Street.

“As soon as you come out of that post-partum period, five to six weeks later, it rises again and, in my case, it goes haywire. Because I had a baby, and it got so bad, doctors were forced to look and say, ‘It’s this.’ Whereas for a lot of people, it happens gradually and then one day they have a catastrophic event; they might wake up with nerve damage and have to learn to walk again, or have heart failure. That’s why I was so lucky.”

Lucky. It’s a word Street will repeat several times in our conversation. It’s in her nature to look on the bright side and that includes holding out hope that she can still add to her family one day.

Street says if this disease had never happened, she might be pregnant with baby number three. Instead, she’s in discussions with her immunologist.

“I’ve always wanted a big family. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if I couldn’t because I’ve got two lovely little girls, but there’s still something in me that thinks I’m not done. My ideal number is probably three. I always thought four – until I had kids!

“But if I do go on to have a third child, it will be quite a consideration, because chances are I’ll have an episode again. It’ll be different this time because I know what I’m dealing with and they know how to treat it. Whether it means going on steroids as soon as I have the baby, I don’t know. It will have to be carefully managed.”

A normal year
Street’s immunologist isn’t the only one she has to convince.

“My husband is extremely worried about my health,” she admits.

“He’d love a third child too, but he’s very worried about what it’ll do to me. I’ll have to get the specialist completely on board before he’ll agree to it. He’s certainly not jumping into it like I probably would. He wants me to be around to actually be their mother. It’s a really hard one. My parents are worried too. When I talk about three children, my mum just looks at me like, ‘Let’s get you well first'.”

Because she avoided having chemotherapy, Street wouldn’t need the eggs she had frozen last year.

However, there is still a chance she’ll need chemo in the future. She might be feeling better than she has in a year, but she’ll never know when her Churg-Strauss syndrome is going to make an appearance.

“You can go into remission, but you’re pretty likely to relapse at some stage in your life,” she says.

“But it could be 10 years before I have a relapse, and then I guess I just go through the whole palaver of the infusions again.”

She’s philosophical about that, as she has been about the whole ordeal. Her wish for 2016 couldn’t be simpler: “I’d just like this to be a normal year.”

She’s crossing her fingers she gets lucky with that, too.

Words: Rachael Russell

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