When Sarah Gandy was diagnosed with breast cancer at the start of this year, she promised herself she'd tackle it with all the optimism and humour she could muster. Yes, it was daunting, but as a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, she was determined not to succumb to sadness or fear.
And that approach has paid off because after nine months of gruelling treatment, the radio star is delighted to share the news that as well as beating cancer, she's still smiling too!
"I'm really proud of myself," says Sarah, as she joins Woman's Day for a celebratory photo shoot. "I'm proud of my body for responding so well to everything that came at it, and I'm proud of my attitude. I wouldn't say that cancer is a gift, because that's just silly, but in a weird way I'm pleased it happened to me because I've learned so much from it."
It's just a couple of weeks since she finished her intensive treatment – which included six rounds of chemotherapy, an eight-hour operation and 15 sessions of radiotherapy – but Sarah is looking radiant. She's thrilled to finally be able to look past her cancer and to the future, with Christmas promising to be a particularly special celebration.
"Getting through the past year is the best present I could ever have wished for," she smiles.
"Christmas this year will be about avoiding any stress of the silly season and just being grateful for the good times. I can't wait to have plenty of sunshine and hang out with all the amazing people in my life."
Her joy is in stark contrast to this time a year ago, when the 37-year-old was battling terrifying panic attacks and anxiety. After taking stress leave from her job as breakfast host on The Hits alongside Toni Street and Sam Wallace, she discovered a lump in her right breast. She was then devastated to learn her contract wouldn't be renewed.
"The lead-up to Christmas last year was just a perfect storm of stress," she recalls. "This year will be the absolute opposite."
Sarah's cancer was finally diagnosed after a mammogram in January and her first chemotherapy began almost immediately. While she knew it would be tough, nothing could have prepared her for the "brutal" nausea and exhaustion, which only got worse with each round.
Her days were spent in bed or on the sofa, with friends rallying around to help the broadcaster and her film editor husband Luke Haigh.
"We don't have family in Auckland, so we really relied on our friends, and they were incredible," she gushes.
"They set up a roster so that we could ask for help – we had people taking me to and from appointments and cooking our dinners for weeks on end. People were really perceptive with what we needed – a friend even lent us her bach at the beach, which came at just the right time. I'd hit a low point and really needed a change of scene and some fresh air."
After six months of chemotherapy, which also caused her to go through early menopause, Sarah went into hospital for a mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a big operation, with her breast tissue replaced with tissue from her stomach, and she was under for more than eight hours. It also gave doctors the chance to see how much of the cancer remained – and they were amazed to find no signs at all. The chemotherapy had worked and Sarah was now officially cancer-free.
"The doctor rang Luke while I was still under the anaesthetic to tell him," she says, beaming. "And when I woke up, I remember talking to my oncologist, who is usually quite a serious guy, but he sounded like a little kid on Christmas morning.
"He was just ecstatic because he hadn't expected it to be such a good result. He explained that the chemo had done exactly what it was meant to, and that the operation and radiotherapy was just insurance from here on in."
While she'll be having Herceptin (a targeted breast cancer drug) for the next three months and hormone therapy medication Tamoxifen for the next five to 10 years, Sarah is confident she's on the home straight – and along with her medical team, she credits her positive attitude for her remarkable recovery.
Ever since her diagnosis, she had regular hypnotherapy sessions with therapist Caroline Cranshaw, who helped train her mind to cope with what was ahead. Sarah quickly conquered a fear of needles and learned the power of positive affirmations, helping her believe that she would beat the cancer.
"To anyone else facing cancer treatment, I can't recommend hypnotherapy highly enough. It stopped the fear – both the fear of dying but also the fear of all the treatment. And it's also helped me not to be afraid of the cancer coming back. It's totally reset my attitude and kept me positive."
Sarah, who tragically lost her mother to bowel cancer at age 10, says the ordeal has made her realise just how strong she is. She knows now she is capable of anything.
"I'm blown away by what I've been able to handle," she enthuses. "I remember asking my psychologist if I was crazy for feeling so positive in the face of cancer, and she pointed out that when you've been through a lot in life, you build resilience."
And as we chat over lunch on a sunny day in Auckland, Sarah happily sips on a glass of rosé, telling us that while she's aiming to lead a healthy lifestyle, she doesn't want to let fear of recurrence take over.
She and Luke, who edited Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, are sticking to a Mediterranean diet – high in fresh vegetables, fish and grains, and low in red meat and dairy – and Sarah has begun exercising again.
"I'm going to the gym and having lots of walks with the dogs. But I'm not obsessing about food because I don't want to feel anxious every time I eat. I refuse to live in the shadow of cancer – I want to get on with my life!"
She's excitedly looking forward to 2020, when she hopes to relaunch herself with a new career path. The budding actress is keen to get back into auditions, as well as doing voiceover and presenting work. And after taking part in some speaking events for the Breast Cancer Foundation, she's even thinking about writing about her own cancer journey.
She hopes that by sharing her story, women will be reminded of the importance of checking their breasts.
"Nobody ever thinks it's going to happen to them, but if there's one thing I want people to do, it's to touch themselves!"
For now, though, she's just thrilled to be well enough to spend quality time with her rock, Luke. He recently celebrated his 40th birthday and Sarah made sure it was an unforgettable occasion by surprising him in Sydney, where he was busy working.
"I secretly organised a trip out on the Sydney Harbour in the same boat that he proposed to me on five years earlier. It was amazing!"
She always knew their marriage was strong, but she says there's no doubt the cancer journey has brought them even closer together.
"No-one wants to watch their wife go through cancer, but he was incredible. He cooked, cleaned and he was with me every step of the way. We have a huge appreciation of each other now. I feel so lucky to have him."
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