“How Humour Is Getting Me Through Breast Cancer – at Just 36”. How Are You Today, Sarah Gandy?

Sarah Gandy – one of our stars of NZ radio – was just 36 when she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. This month, she is proud to launch a new campaign with the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation, which aims to talk to women who think they might be too young to worry about breast cancer, to be mindful of what to look out for, because, sadly, as Sarah knows, breast cancer doesn’t just affect the 45+ age group.

Hi Sarah, how are you today?
I’m great, actually! Thank you for asking! It’s been a busy day, so to be honest I’m probably going to have a nap after this. But I’m very excited about this campaign and I feel like after this weird 18-months of my life, it’s nice to be throwing myself back into something other than cancer treatment!!

Can I ask where you’re at now with your treatment?
Of course! I had my last chemo the day before lockdown at the end of March. That was a year and a bit of treatment, so I was very happy to see back of that. I still take a pill every day, and probably will for about 10 years, but it means that my really active treatment has been over for a few months now. I still get tired, I still have fatigue. I’m just trying to put my body back together, but I’m getting there – slowly, but surely.

It must also feel like a blessing to have had it over and done with before lockdown began.
My god yes. I spoke with my oncologist about it and from his perspective people were still having treatment and everything, but there were things like you might not be able to bring a support person with you, or there’s just that stress and anxiety of knowing you’ve already got a lowered immune system and now you have to leave the house at a time when that’s very scary. It’s a lot of anxiety that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I was thankful I was past that part of the journey.

Lockdown and the pandemic must have provided its own unique mental challenges for you too though. What was that time like for you?
It’s funny because there’s a thing in cancer where they call it the “new normal”. Once you get that diagnosis and go through treatment, your life is never going to be the same. I feel like the whole world is going through that this year! The whole world has got a new normal!

It’s funny because career has always been a big thing for me and part of my identity, so stopping working for such a long time, I’ve actually been very uncomfortable with that. And in a good way, I’ve had to learn how to find my identity without it being what I do for a living and stop valuing myself based on what I do for a job. That shouldn’t be how I value my being.

Sarah, with her husband Luke, just after her first chemotherapy session.

Because, I hope I’ve got this right, you had been working in breakfast radio, but you’d gone through a difficult time at work just before your diagnosis?
That’s right. I was having panic attacks. They were getting worse and worse, then one day I had one just before I had to go into work. I still went to work but turned up in not a good way – just shell-shocked and my producer took one look at me and sent me home. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t even have been driving. I thought I was fine, but when I went back down to the car park to drive home, my car was parked so terribly.

I went to the doctor that day because I’d never experienced a panic attack that intense, and she said, “you need to have six weeks off work, you’re burnt out beyond recognition and you need to work out what is going on”. I took the time off work, started seeing a therapist and then when I started going, ‘right, now I’m going to come back to work’, my bosses turned around and said they weren’t renewing my contract for the breakfast show. To be honest I still don’t really understand what happened and I don’t get it. I really struggled with my manager at the time – it was not a healthy work environment for me and clearly something needed to change… but then the universe was like, “wow, well do we have news for you!”

God, and that’s when you got the diagnosis?
Yip, I left that job and then I got my mammogram and ultrasound and was diagnosed pretty much straight afterwards. It was a real rollercoaster and I really had to focus on my mental health because I’d already kind of dealt with a couple of bombs being dropped, and here was another one. My mum passed away from bowel cancer when she was only 39, so when I got the news, at first I was like, “ohhh, here we go…”

Everyone said to me, ‘if you get your mental health right, everything else will follow’, and it was so the best advice. I truly believe that having my head in the right place helped my body respond well to the treatments. I mean it’s not like I didn’t get side effects from the chemo and radiation, but mentally I felt strong enough to not let them drag me down, if that makes sense.

Completely. What I really admire about you, having followed you on Instagram, is how you’ve also approached this with so much humour. Was that a conscious decision from the outset?
The line between comedy and tragedy is so thin. I think it just comes out because I am that person who uses humour as a defence mechanism and so it was totally a coping tool.

One of the first things I did when I was told I was having chemo was I looked up all the side effects – which was a horrible rabbit hole to go down – so then to deal with that, I made one of those fake Coachella posters and made it ‘Chemochella’ – with all the side effects of chemo, some made up bands, but also ones like My Chemical Romance, which seemed appropriate. I sent it to my friend who had cancer and she was in tears laughing at it.

Sarah’s stellar “Chemochella” line-up!

Now, I know you have a really close friend, Delaney, who is a similar – ridiculously young – age to you who has also had breast cancer. Did it help to have a friend who understood what you were going through? Who did you lean on for support?
It was incredible. In the start, the reason I actually went to my GP after I found the lump was I had Delaney in the back of my mind, going ‘You need to make that appointment!’

I had so much else going on at the time that I found that lump, I almost wonder that if I didn’t have a personal connection like that, would I have gone and got it checked so immediately? I don’t know that I would have. So, I really credit her as being the reason I got my butt into gear.

And once I was diagnosed, she was amazing. She sent me over books, and connected me with a friend, Rebecca, here in NZ who had helped her with her own journey. Suddenly I’m going around to her house for smoothies and someone to tell me that chemo wasn’t that bad.

Then I had another close friend Kat, who had ovarian cancer, she was this amazing friend and support, but also this wealth of knowledge. When I got the call that I had cancer, I told her and she and her partner came over and we popped a bottle of champagne – because, well, if not now, when? – and she answered all my questions. She told me about cold capping – this cap you wear while you’re getting chemo and it freezes your scalp to -4 and it helps you keep your hair. I lost my eyelashes, eyebrows and hair everywhere else but I kept most of the hair on my head – maybe about 90% of it. It was incredible to have that little piece of yourself still.

Those three were my closest cohorts and It was nice that all of them were people I knew before cancer.

And am I right in thinking you had another friend going through cancer – your own dog?
Yes! It was horrible. She was only seven. She got me through chemo – when you’re going through a bad time, animals are so amazing, and having my two pups come cuddle up with me when I came home from chemo was the best. Then she was diagnosed with cancer so she went through her own round of doggy chemo. In fact, we both had our last chemo session on the same day. My poor husband had to go pick up the dog from chemo, then me! But unfortunately, chemo didn’t work for her and we lost her during lockdown.

Oh, I’m so sorry Sarah. God, 2020 really is a mean-spirited bitch.
Oh thank you, look we were lucky because during lockdown many people couldn’t go into their vets with their animals for their last moments, but our vet managed to find a big enough space so we could do it safely – only one of us went in, so I went in to be with her. It was a really hard time. Then we decided to put our name down with a really well-regarded woman to get our names on the list for a new doggy, thinking it’d be a year – then, by July we suddenly had a dog! So this last lockdown was very different – we had this new ball of love. It was a really nice change.

Sarah with her new, life-saving tool!

One thing I’ve heard people say when they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, is their surprise at losing some friends – those people who just don’t know what to say, so say nothing and end up fading away. Did you experience that, and do you have any advice for people on what they could say to a friend who has been diagnosed?
That did happen to me and it was quite hard at the time, because I wasn’t sure how to tackle it, but then I thought, “I’ve got enough on my plate, I think I might have to let this one slide!” I can see how it happens because it can be a lot for people, and you don’t know what’s going on with them personally, so I don’t judge them for it. I think it comes from a place of fear, not malice.

But I guess my advice would be, if you find yourself in that position where you’re not sure what to say, there’s honestly not a lot of wrong things you can say to someone with cancer. To be honest, just saying something is so appreciated. Even if it’s like, “Hey, how are you feeling? What are you watching on Netflix?” it can be that low level.

People worry so much about saying the wrong thing that they don’t say anything at all and unfortunately that doesn’t go unnoticed – I wish it wasn’t the case, but do you notice the people who don’t reach out. So please do reach out, send a joke, send them a cute photo, say “hey I’ve been reading this really good book and I think you’d like it”, any of those things! What was amazing was the people who came out of the woodwork who I hadn’t spoken to in years who were dropping off breakfast after surgery, or asking to walk my dogs for me, or pick me up from chemo.

Okay, now please, tell me about this new campaign you have cooked up with the BCFNZ!
Yes! It’s Change and Check – I randomly stumbled upon this campaign that was in the UK started by a woman Helen Addis who is a breast cancer survivor. They’re these stickers in changing rooms that show you the nine symptoms of breast cancer. I messaged her and said, I don’t want to steal your idea, but I’d really like to bring it to NZ – would you mind me redesigning them for an NZ market and she was like “hell yeah!” So I sat down with Delaney actually, and she helped me redesign them.

For a start they’ll be in changing rooms in Farmers stores throughout NZ, but I really want these stickers anywhere that will take them – pools, gyms, the bathroom at work – anywhere where women are taking a quick look in the mirror. You might go, oh I didn’t know that a rash was a sign of breast cancer? I’ll go book in at the doctor.

It’s important to know the signs isn’t it, because as you well know, breast cancer doesn’t just affect women who are 45 plus.
Absolutely. I didn’t pay attention to breast cancer stuff because I really thought I was too young. But the reality is you don’t have a mammogram until 45 because your boobs are too dense and it’s not going to pick it up. Yes, you are less likely to get breast cancer when you’re younger, but it’s more aggressive, so catching it early is even more important. That’s why I think knowing the symptoms are so important, I know all the symptoms of Covid-19, but didn’t know all the breast cancer ones. It’s important to know what those signs are.

My plea is anyone who can put a sticker up, please go to the site and we will send you as many stickers as you need!

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and there are loads of different ways to get involved – from being breast-aware, to helping to raise vital funds for breast cancer research, education and support. Visit www.breastcancerfoundation.org.nz to learn more.

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