From the outside, Tamzyn Adding and Anika Henderson appeared to have it all. Both successful mothers and businesswomen with supportive partners and lively young families, they had kids at the same school and would often exchange a wave or quick hello across the playground.
But it was only when the gorgeous Auckland mums were diagnosed with cancer within a week of each other – Tamzyn with breast cancer and Anika with cancer of the bowel – that they forged a firm friendship.
“Our families and friends have all been amazing,” says stylist and mum-of-four Tamzyn, 37. “But Anika has been my rock. When I saw how she faced her situation head on, it made me strong too. No-one really knows what you’re going through unless you’ve been there.”
The bombshell diagnoses hit both women like a bolt from the blue. After all, breast cancer is rare in women under 45 and bowel cancer is most common in 60-something men.
But in September, Tamzyn – who co-owns furniture business Miss Lolo with her husband Ben – was left reeling as a doctor broke the news that a small lump that had been dismissed as scar tissue was actually breast cancer.
“I was driving at the time,” she says. “I pulled over and started vomiting. Ben was in the car with me. I said, ‘F*. OK, I’m dying, that’s that.’ I literally collapsed in fear. That night, I met with the surgeon and he said, ‘You’re not going to die – we caught it early. We’re going to take the breast off and you’re going to be fine. You’ve got another 50 years in you.’”
Surgery was scheduled within days and at the request of doctors, who encouraged her to help educate other younger women, she began posting her journey on Facebook.
Little did Tamzyn know that at the same moment, a few kilometres away, Anika’s world was taking a similar turn. The 36-year-old mum-of-three – whose husband Chris was an Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 finalist with his business partner Duane Dalton for their Australasian Pita Pit franchise – would never have suspected her coeliac-like symptoms of bloating, diarrhoea and occasional bleeding would turn out to be cancer.
“I’d had the symptoms for about a year, but because I hadn’t felt really ill, I didn’t think it was anything too serious,” she explains. Despite the shock news, Anika kept it together for her children.
“I told the kids, ‘Mummy has something bad in her tummy that needs to be removed,’ and they were great, asking really intelligent questions. My husband Chris was a warrior too.”
As Anika lay in her hospital bed recovering from the operation, where one-third of her bowel was removed, Tamzyn’s Facebook post popped up. “I thought, ‘I know her! I’ve seen her on the school run,’” she tells. Straight away, Anika emailed Tamzyn and ignited an incredible bond.
Since the two went public, the response from other women has been more complex, says Tamzyn. “Mums who used to say hi at school would just hurry past with their heads down. It’s incredibly frustrating – there’s still such a stigma around cancer.”
But for every awkward reaction, there are many more heart-warming ones. Dozens of women have contacted her to share their own stories and ask for advice.
Tamzyn has been given a 95% survival rate, while Anika, who will need to undergo 12 bouts of chemotherapy over the next few months, has an 80% survival rate.
“Finding out I had to have chemo was the worst day,” she says. “But even though it’s incredibly unpleasant, it’s the kind that doesn’t make your hair fall out, which I am so grateful for.”
For Tamzyn, the medication she must take for 10 years means she and Ben have had to give up their dreams of baby number five. “Taking the medicine could harm an unborn child. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me sad, but at the same time, I know how lucky I am to be alive.”
The two women still find it hard to believe that only a few months ago, they were almost strangers.
“This is not a ‘poor me’ story – quite the opposite,” insists Tamzyn. “We both feel incredibly lucky to have had each other’s support and we want women to be aware that cancer can – and does – get you, even if you think you’re too young.
“Having that mammogram or getting checked as soon as you suspect something – and maybe even if you don’t – is really important. The odds fall incredibly in your favour if you are diagnosed early. And while cancer undeniably sucks, it’s no longer a death sentence – we’re living proof of that.”
✦ Each year in New Zealand, 1200 lives are lost to bowel cancer and 600 to breast cancer.
✦ Kiwi women have the highest rate of bowel cancer in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.
✦ Breast cancer affects one in nine NZ women over the course of their lifetime.
✦ Although it’s uncommon, men also get breast cancer. On average, 20 men are diagnosed in Aotearoa every year.