Celebrity News

Toni Street reveals her secret battle with auto-immune disease

She’s learning to live with a life-changing illness
Toni Street

With her trademark cheeky grin firmly in place and those sparkling eyes as lively as ever as she banters with her Seven Sharp co-host Mike Hosking, TV golden girl Toni Street appears to have taken her return to work in her stride since welcoming baby number two earlier this year.

But behind her bubbly on-screen persona, the brave 32-year-old is facing the battle of a lifetime after being struck down by a frightening auto-immune disease, which, unbeknown to Toni, has been attacking her body for almost six years.

“It’s been pretty horrible,” she admits as she welcomes Woman’s Day into her Auckland home to open up about the terrifying past few months. With baby Mackenzie fast asleep in her cot and Juliette, who turns three this week, happily doing laps around the living room on her balance bike, it’s a good time to talk – but speaking out about the shock diagnosis isn’t easy.

“If someone had told me six months ago that I was about to go through all this, I just don’t know what I would’ve thought, but it’s amazing how resilient you can be when you’re faced with these things. I have had some very dark moments, though, when I’ve worried I’m not going to be around to look after my girls – and that’s been tough.”

Diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune disease called Churg-Strauss syndrome, the young mum is doing her best to remain positive. But at its worst, she was in the early stages of organ failure and facing the terrifying prospect she could die from the disease.

As revealed in Woman’s Day earlier this year, Toni’s health crisis began just weeks after Mackenzie’s birth, with agonising stomach pain and many nights spent in hospital as doctors battled to work out what was wrong. Eventually, she had surgery to remove her gallbladder and, at the time, she and husband Matt France were hopeful the health woes were behind her. But sadly, it wasn’t to be.

Toni explains, “I’d been told that I would feel miles better pretty much as soon as my gallbladder was out, but just a day or two later, the horrible pain returned and I just had this awful sinking feeling that things still weren’t right. I kind of knew deep down that something else quite nasty was going on.”

Toni and her precious family – husband Matt, little Mackenzie and big sister Juliette.

‘A bombshell’

Also fearing something sinister, Toni’s gastroenterologist analysed her blood results from the past three years and quickly referred her on to an immunologist, who was able to diagnose Churg-Strauss.

The frightening illness, which causes an overactive immune system, has three stages, beginning with allergies (which Toni has suffered from for the past six years, even undergoing surgery on her nasal polyps earlier this year) and ending in organ failure. The disease, which can be fatal if not caught in time, has no cure but can be controlled with steroid treatment and, in many cases, chemotherapy.

“I went to that first appointment with the immunologist having absolutely no idea anything this serious could have been happening and I just couldn’t believe what he was telling me. It was a bombshell.

“I managed to hold it together with the doctor, but I got out to the car and just burst into tears as I rang Matt and my parents. I was freaking out – the words ‘organ failure’ and ‘chemotherapy’ were so scary.”

The next fortnight was terrifying as Toni visited a raft of medical specialists, including a cardiologist and bone doctor, to systematically check every part of her body for signs of damage. It was now clear her gallbladder had been the first organ to succumb.

“Those two weeks were pretty horrific. I was in complete panic and shock. I also made the big mistake of consulting Dr Google, which is never a good idea – it wasn’t a pretty picture!

“I remember lying in bed at night, thinking, ‘I’m not going to be around to look after my children,'” Toni says through tears, just as little Juliette leaps off her bike and into her mum’s lap for a cuddle.

“That’s the great thing about having littlies around, though. When you’re having a tough time, they’re the best distraction and so full of love,” she smiles. Fortunately, Toni’s heart and kidneys were spared, but some damage to the bowel led doctors to believe that was where the disease was next headed. Straight away, Toni was sent to Auckland Hospital for her first round of IV steroid infusions, which she must continue three times a month for six months. The gruelling, high-dose treatment takes its toll on the presenter, who must also have a concoction of different immune-suppressant drugs each day.

Toni reveals her little ones have been the best distraction during a tough time.

“By the end of the infusions, I’m feeling pretty bad,” she says. “They make me really puffy and achy, and you just feel really worn out. But the other side of it is they make you quite depressed and I’ve never felt like that before. My specialist has also warned me that they can make you aggressive and even lead to psychosis, but fortunately that hasn’t happened. I’ve warned Mike to watch out, though!” she jokes.

Seven Sharp bosses have given her the Friday off during her treatment weeks, and she and Matt are careful to lie low. “I’ve had to learn that it’s important to look after myself a lot more. I just try to go for walks and not push myself too much. It’s just a matter of getting through it.”

Toni also has twice-weekly blood tests to closely monitor her condition and she faces the very real possibility of a six-month course of chemotherapy. For Toni, who would love a third child, this would have huge consequences.

“There’s a high chance that chemo would leave me infertile,” she explains, “so we’ve been to see fertility specialists who say they’d quickly remove my eggs before starting the treatment so that we can investigate IVF further down the track.

“It’s just so strange that we’re suddenly faced with all this because I became pregnant so easily with the girls. I’m still trying to get my head around it.”

Toni says the ordeal has taught her the importance of taking care of herself.

Staying strong

Despite all this, effervescent Toni is doing an amazing job at remaining upbeat. She credits Matt’s support for keeping her going in her darkest moments, as well as her parents Geoff and Wendy, who have spent more time at Toni’s Auckland home than at their own in New Plymouth in recent months.

“I felt really bad dumping all this on Mum and Dad because they’ve already been through so much,” she says, referring to the tragic loss of Toni’s 14-year-old brother Stephen, who passed away after a farm-bike accident in 2001. Her twin brother Lance died of leukaemia when they were 18 months old and younger sister Tracy passed away shortly after her birth in 1986.

“But they’ve been amazing – they really are the strongest people I know. They were both extremely worried, but they said, ‘Let’s just start at the beginning and work through this.’ They came to Auckland straight away and once again held the fort while Matt and I went to the endless appointments. I couldn’t have done it without them – it would’ve been impossible.”

She’s also been blown away by the kindness of her sister Kirsty and Matt’s mum Mary, as well as friends and workmates, who have been delivering meals and care packages as she recovers. “I find it quite hard to receive help because I can’t help but think there must be people who need it more than me, but everyone has been amazing.”

And Toni is grateful her gorgeous girls haven’t seemed to notice their mum’s illness. “Juliette comes with me to the hospital sometimes and holds my hand while I have the blood tests. Mackenzie is just a lovely, cruisy, calm, chubby little baby. She’s a breeze – we’ve been so lucky – and I do think she’s quite oblivious to what’s been going on. With everything that’s happened in the past six months, though, I do look at her and think, ‘Where did the time go?'”

With Juliette’s third birthday party to organise and Seven Sharp to front each day, Toni has plenty to keep her mind off things. But she has also promised to take her loved ones’ pleas for her to slow down seriously.

“Things have definitely changed and some things have had to take a back seat, like catching up with friends and going to fitness boot camp,” she admits. “I get tired a lot more easily now. There were a few weeks where I was probably pushing myself a bit too hard and I realised that I was quite sore, so that was a wake-up call. I expect my husband would say I’m not slowing down enough, though,” she laughs. “He’s constantly telling me to stop saying yes to things!”

Happy place

While some people have asked why she’s still working so hard, Toni says it’s a great source of happiness for her. “I love my job,” she smiles. “It gives me a sense of normality and structure.” And she jokes she’d “miss Mike too much”.

But the ordeal has definitely changed her outlook, and spurred her and Matt to take life by the horns. While Toni will always have the disease, she’s hopeful she can get it under control and eventually be medication-free.

“Every time I see my specialist, he just keeps saying, ‘You’re a very lucky girl,’ because most of my organs were spared. So I try to keep that in mind – this could have been so much worse. Getting sick is just a great reminder that you never know what’s around the corner, so you really need to do the things that make you happy.

“It’s funny – soon after all this happened, Matt went out and bought me a guitar because he knows I’ve always wanted to learn. We are now totally determined to take more time for ourselves and our family. It’s about enjoying the girls while they’re little and making every moment count.”

Related stories