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The secret pain behind Leah Panapa's smile

In an exhausting year that saw her clashing with bitter, lockdown-weary callers, the veteran radio host was also battling a health crisis at home

By Fleur Guthrie
Taking inventory of the year that was, seasoned broadcaster Leah Panapa sums up her 2021 in one word: "brutal".
Deftly navigating three different radio slots – and dealing with the public backlash of replacing other announcers – all in the space of nine months, off -air the vivacious talkback host was also privately supporting husband Mike Nesbitt after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The encouraging news was that it had been caught early after Mike's doctor encouraged him to start taking prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests in his late 40s. PSA is a protein produced by both cancerous and non-cancerous tissue in the prostate, a small gland that sits below the bladder in males.
"I wasn't particularly keen on getting the traditional prostate check done," smiles Welsh-born Mike, who jokingly gesticulates putting on a latex glove. "But I learned that you don't have to have that invasive check with a PSA test, which has ended up saving my life. My doctor took one reading a few years ago and that was the base level. Then 18 months ago, after another PSA test, it shot up, signalling something was wrong."
After a biopsy, the couple went to North Shore Hospital in February to get the results. They were told Mike had stage-one cancer, but the tumour itself was "quite big" and would need surgery.
Leah picks up the story. "Because we didn't have medical insurance, the wait times in the public health system were very long, mixed in with lockdowns," she explains. "I don't do waiting well and it felt like we weren't going anywhere.
'Hearing those words again – it's cancer – brought back some horrific memories'
"We actually had taken a loan to do some house renovations. But we decided to put those on hold and use the money to go the private health route instead because we didn't want the tumour to get bigger or have the cancer go to another stage."
Mike, 53, was referred to urology surgeon Dr Michael Mackey and was booked in for keyhole surgery six weeks later.
"Lockdown delayed everything, so I had the operation at the beginning of September," he tells. "It would have been a lot longer if we hadn't gone private. But I wasn't prepared to risk that."
Adds Leah, "Many people can't afford to go private. I talked about it on my show and had so many guys ring me who also had prostate cancer and had waited over a year in the public system to get their call up for surgery. With Covid and the constant shutting down of things, it's not just prostate, it's every other cancer that isn't getting screened or people aren't getting seen for treatment. I know we have to be cautious, but we're going to have a tsunami of people suffering."
For Mike, who has just started a new role as a radio broadcast equipment consultant, this was his second visit to the "world of cancer".
At the age of 15, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) and treated with radiotherapy, followed by chemotherapy.
"Hearing those words again, 'it's cancer', brought back some horrific memories," he says quietly.
"It did unnerve me because cause there's that tussle in your head that this could be the last of me. It put me into a little bit of a depressive tailspin. But I drew on the coping tools I had learned from when I was a sick teenager, namely exercise.
"I used to be a long-distance runner when I was a kid, so with prostate cancer I decided to keep exercising at the gym every day to allow the endorphins and dopamine to f ow around my body."
"You've been a trouper, babe," says Leah, smiling at her partner of 20 years. "I probably would have taken two weeks off and pulled the blankets up over my head."
Thankfully, a month after Mike's operation, his PSA levels were negligible, showing his body was clear of cancer ("touch wood"), but he will continue to be monitored.
"It took a few weeks of recovery, but I look back and think it was probably a good thing we were in lockdown," he muses. "The most dreadful part was having to wear a catheter for nine days straight. For the first three days, it looked like I was attached to a big bag of rosé wine!"
As they chat to the Weekly over a video call, the goodhumoured couple are enjoying a few relaxing nights on Auckland's Waiheke Island with their two beloved border collie crosses, Kaiser and Kasha.
The month-long summer break is the perfect panacea to what has been an exhausting year and time to recharge before Leah begins a new noon-to-4pm show on Today FM (replacing Magic Talk) with former New Zealand cricketer and The AM Show host Mark Richardson.
"We joke in this industry about burnout, but I really don't think I understood it until last year," the 52- year-old announcer shares candidly. "I was burnt out beyond burnt. Listeners were over it too. I noticed the talkback was becoming more negative and vitriolic, especially when the vaccine mandates came in.
"People took it out on the talkback host," says Leah, who went from presenting the night show to co-hosting the 12-4pm slot with Danny Watson, before moving to mornings as the replacement for Peter Williams.
"I was called a sheep and had people saying, 'You're paid by Bill Gates.' On one particularly bad day, I admittedly lost it with a caller and called them an idiot on air. I really shouldn't have done it because it was harsh, but I came back after the break and apologised. Some text messages said I was a bully; some said, 'Don't worry, you're fine.'"
'On one particularly bad day, I lost it with a caller and called them an idiot'
During December, Leah reveals she even got some encouraging messages from her soon-to-be new talkback co-host, who was also listening in.
"Mark was tuning in every morning and I'd get these random texts from him saying, 'You handled that caller well. I don't know if I'd have been able to do that.' He's rung me a few times too. I keep answering sharply with, 'Who is this?' and pretend I don't have his number in my phone," grins Leah.
"Seriously, he's really focused – professional sportspeople are like that – and I know he's really keen to give talkback a good go. I think we're going to be a great team… as long as my name is first in the titles," she laughs uproariously.
When asked if they have much in common, Leah typically doesn't miss a beat to answer with dry humour.
"Well, obviously we're both ex-sports stars with me being a polo expert… At this stage, Mark and I seem to be on the same page and I don't think he talks nonsense, which is good.
"Of course, we don't have to agree on everything, but I don't want to fight with him every day either, which some other talkback duos have done in the past.
"It's a hard job to be put with people," she admits. "You never know if you're going to have the same values. I've been teamed with so many different announcers now. Some really worked, some have been horrible. But I always go into all of them with the mindset of, 'It's going to be great,' otherwise you set yourself up to fail."
The pairing of Leah and Mark is a reunion of sorts too. They worked together in 2016, hosting the breakfast show on The Sound radio network before he joined The AM Show.
"We got on really, really well. Whenever I would bump into him, he'd often say, 'If we ever had the opportunity, I'd love to work with you again,' and I'd mockingly go, 'Jog on, muppet, you've had your chance and you left me for television!'
"We always joked that TV is the mistress but radio is the wife. But he's returned to the loving bosom of radio and I feel like I'm the wife who's let him back!"

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