To look at Toni Huata, sunlight playing across her face as she talks 19 to the dozen and munches on an apple, there’s no inkling that less than a year ago, she was facing the possibility of not being around to see her two children grow up following a shock cancer diagnosis.
The award-winning Wellington singer was diagnosed with HER2-positive – a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer – in June last year, a month after discovering a lump in her left breast on the night of her husband Adrian Wagner’s birthday.
Not wanting to disrupt the routines of her children – son Te Okanga (13) and seven-year-old daughter Ropine – and in the throes of organising an upcoming performance in Spain as well as a Matariki tour, she put off seeing a doctor for a month.
The diagnosis, she says, was surreal.
“The doctor at the hospital walked in and said, ‘You have breast cancer.’ He checked me, went poke-poke-poke, then told me I’d need chemo, radiation therapy and by the end of the year, a lumpectomy. That was it. I just felt numb.”
Toni – whose mother Hera had battled ovarian cancer and whose father Jeff, an evangelical minister, died of throat cancer in 2013 – spent a day crying, grieving for what she thought she was about to lose, including her hair and eyebrows, and more importantly, if she died, her family.
But two days later, following a gig in Hastings, an aunt took Toni to meet a mother and daughter who had both been through double mastectomies and breast reconstructions.
“They told me to do what felt right for me, that I didn’t have to go down the track the surgeons were suggesting.”
Returning to Wellington, Toni – who concedes she has always done things her own way – asked for another appointment at the hospital. This time, she was seen by a “fabulous” female surgeon “who listened to what I wanted”, and recommended radiotherapy and an operation to remove the cancerous tumour.
Toni, who is in her 30s, agreed to the operation, but refused to have chemo or radiotherapy.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got two young children – how cruel would it be for them to see me in the throes of chemo, potentially watching their mother dying?’ It wasn’t a decision based on vanity. I just knew it was the wrong thing for me.”
Toni dedicated herself to researching the disease, altered her diet and started taking a more holistic approach to fitness. She turned to ketogenics, a theory that diet can be used to “starve” some forms of cancer, swapping red meat, sugar, coffee and preservatives for organic and raw food.
She got rid of her microwave oven, limited her internet and cellphone use, sought out naturopathic remedies and explored alternative Eastern therapies such as reiki and mahikari, a Japanese practice based on light healing, as well as traditional Maori medicine or rongoa.
That last step saw Toni undergo hauwai, where she lay under blankets and tarpaulins over burning tutu leaves and steaming stones in a sauna-type treatment that is believed to help draw out impurities.
Toni knows there will be critics and sceptics – even her husband Adrian, who was devastated at the diagnosis, initially wanted her to go down the conventional route.
Toni explains, “I’ve tried everything, but what I have chosen is my journey. It’s not everyone’s journey.”
Today, sitting on the back porch of her family’s home, Toni’s battle against cancer continues, although she insists she’s feeling stronger and healthier than she has in a long time.
In February, she performed at the Te Matatini kapa haka festival and last month, she released an album of songs from her Ngati Kahungunu iwi, all but one of them written by the grandfather who brought her up.
Last month, she had a small piece of breast tissue removed as a precautionary measure and she’s now on a North Island concert tour, Takitimu Karanga, with other artists from her tribe.
“I’m a perfectionist to a certain degree,” tells Toni. “I’m overprotective of my kids. If there’s an injustice, I have to fix it. In the years leading up to my diagnosis, I was highly stressed. I know that now. I’ve come to realise that you can’t always save the world.
“The cancer was a wake-up call, but I’ve learnt not to be so strict on myself, not to beat myself up over things and to do more things that bring me joy.
“To be told you have cancer really knocks you, but my life has changed 100 per cent since my diagnosis. I’m thankful for every day that I breathe, and have time to spend with my children and my family.”