Radio star Sarah Gandy was just 10 when she lost her beloved mum Judy to cancer.
Now, 26 years on, she's facing the same cruel disease, but rather than succumb to fear or panic, Sarah is staying positive, telling us she's determined she'll come out the other side of her battle with breast cancer.
"Attitude is everything," says the courageous broadcaster, welcoming us into her West Auckland home just a day after her first chemotherapy treatment. "I'm thinking of it like a long-haul flight – there will be some rough parts but it'll be paradise when I get there."
With her film-editor husband Luke Haigh at her side, and their beloved pooches Poppy and Pico draped across her lap, Sarah is tired and nauseous, but she's bravely sharing her story in the hope it will raise breast cancer awareness, especially for younger women like herself.
"If I can get even one person to give themselves a pat-down after reading this, then that's a job well done," she asserts.
Sarah's story begins in November last year, when she was shocked to find a lump in her right breast. She'd been regularly checking herself after her good friend, Step Dave actress Delaney Tabron, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. But Sarah, 36, admits she never expected to find anything suspicious, especially as her focus had always been on her increased risk of bowel cancer, given her mother succumbed to the disease at just 39.
Sarah visited her GP, who told her that while it was unlikely to be anything serious, she would refer her for a mammogram and ultrasound. Despite having medical insurance, Sarah felt comfortable going through the public system and was given an appointment for two months later, on January 23.
"I've since been told that's a really long wait," she says. "But at the time, I remember thinking, 'Well, it can't be serious because otherwise they'd want to see me sooner.'"
Putting the lump out of their minds, Sarah and Luke – who edited Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople – headed off to the United States for the holiday of a lifetime. They spent a romantic Christmas in New York and several weeks visiting friends in Los Angeles.
"It was just one of those life-changing trips – totally inspiring and amazing," she says, with Luke adding that they were both confident Sarah's lump would turn out to be nothing.
"We knew that 80% of these things are benign, so it just didn't feel scary at all. And deep down, I felt she'd been through enough in her life, so there was no way it would be bad."
The devoted couple, who married three years ago, were in dire need of a break after Sarah was forced to take time off from hosting The Hits breakfast show due to severe anxiety and panic attacks. She'd been struggling to cope with the stress of work – not to mention the gruelling 4am starts – and her mental health was suffering badly.
Sarah explains, "It was a stressful work environment and everything just got the better of me. So I went away and made some changes. I saw a psychologist to figure out where this was all coming from."
But when she felt ready to return to work, Sarah was shocked to learn that her breakfast contract hadn't been renewed. It was a huge blow.
"I was devastated," she says with tears in her eyes. "I love radio, I love my co-hosts [Toni Street and Sam Wallace] and I was really looking forward to getting back into it."
But during her US trip Sarah embraced the change, realising it was the nudge she needed to take a new direction in life. After having acting lessons for years, she decided now was the time to give it a proper go, excitedly lining up a string of TV and film auditions.
But on their return to NZ, those plans were shelved when Sarah's mammogram revealed not one, but three lumps – two in her right breast and one in a lymph node. The biggest was a startling 7cm long.
"And there I was thinking 2019 was going to be my year," she says ruefully.
A biopsy confirmed what Sarah and Luke were dreading – it was indeed breast cancer. But Sarah surprised herself with her calm reaction.
"I didn't have a breakdown at all when I got the diagnosis. I didn't even cry. Luke and I just sat there on the sofa in shock. We were saying, 'f%, f%, f%', over and over."
Continues Luke, "We weren't angry or bitter because there's no point. That's wasted energy and all it does is hurt you. We just have to see this as another challenge and get through it."
Sarah is forever grateful to have medical insurance as it's given her access to drugs otherwise not funded publicly and her treatment has been able to start swiftly.
With her first chemo session done last week, she has five more to go over the course of the next five months. After that, she'll undergo a mastectomy and reconstruction, before a course of radiotherapy. In an act of self-preservation, she hasn't asked doctors what stage her cancer is at.
"I don't want to know," she says. "I'm having what's called 'curative' treatment, so that's enough for me."
"She was a very strong woman. And in lots of ways she tried to protect me and my brothers from what she was going through. I miss her all the time. Dads are great, but mums are special."
She clearly recalls the day she learned her mother had died at home in Tawa, Wellington. "I remember going to school because I didn't know what else I should do. The teachers were kind, but the kids bullied me. They said, 'Haha, your mum died.' It was brutal."
She knows it must be terrifying for her father to see his daughter diagnosed with cancer after losing his wife to the same disease. But she's hopeful her positive approach will rub off on those around her.
A confronting side effect of the treatment is early menopause, which means Sarah is likely to face fertility issues. While she and Luke were undecided about starting a family before the diagnosis, they recently saw a specialist.
"It would've been nice to still have the option of having children," explains Sarah.
"But going through IVF would have put my cancer treatment back too late, so that wasn't a risk we could've taken. It's a bit sad, but there are other ways to have babies, so if we want to do that after all this is over, then we will."
Sarah's cancer has brought memories of her mum's final months flooding back. She still misses the "amazingly cool woman" who passed on her love of dance and drama to her only daughter, and she wishes desperately her mother was here today.
"I've been telling him he doesn't need to worry as medicine has come so far in 30 years and I'm going to be fine. And I'm not just saying that – I genuinely feel really positive about it all."
As Sarah and Luke approach some of the toughest times any married couple will go through, their support for one another is unwavering.
They're embracing a "cancer diet" – rich in organic food and low in sugar – and cutting out caffeine and alcohol. Stress is also off the menu, with Sarah saying she has no doubt her cancer is linked to her difficult time last year.
"Stress wreaks havoc on the body," she says. "It's what got me here in the first place, so I have to ditch all that."
Sarah fights back tears as she talks about Luke, who is scaling back his work commitments to be at his wife's side throughout her gruelling treatment.
"In some ways, this is harder on him than me. We don't have any family in Auckland, so it's a lot to take on, but he's amazing. He's at every appointment with me, and he cooks, cleans and does all the laundry. Although, to be honest, it was like that before too!"
But more than anything else, they're determined to maintain their positive, energetic and fun approach. Sarah has named the chemotherapy her "boob ninjas" and visualises them marching through her body, blasting away the cancer. These ninjas also refer to their tight group of friends, who've set up a roster to provide meals, driving and support.
"You have to inject as much fun and light into all this as you can," says Sarah. "Otherwise, you'll just lose yourself along the way. And I don't want to lose myself to this. I'm going to come out the other side."
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