After surviving breast cancer, Sarah Gandy has made it her mission to make sure New Zealand women know the signs of the disease so they can too.
Sarah Gandy is so delightful you can’t help but smile when you speak to her. She speaks in a flurry and giggles often. It feels as if you’re speaking to a friend over wine. Her voice is warm and welcoming and it’s easy to see why she had such a solid fanbase on radio.
I find myself thinking how incredibly grateful I am that this stranger, who I have spoken to only once, survived breast cancer. Her survival means many other women will also survive this wretched disease because this has become her mission since her treatment ended in March: saving lives.
After six rounds of chemotherapy, which caused early menopause, a nine-and-a-half hour operation, 15 sessions of radiotherapy over the course of a 14 months, and 18 rounds of targeted therapy (Herceptin and Perjeta), Sarah has now begun a new battle. She wants every person with breasts to know the symptoms and signs of breast cancer, so she’s leading the Change and Check campaign with Breast Cancer Foundation NZ to help spread the message that early diagnosis saves lives.
Diagnosed at 36, Sarah had never spent a night in hospital. She was just two years younger than her mother was when she died of bowel cancer when Sarah was 10 years old. So although cancer wasn’t foreign to her, breast cancer was not her focus.
It’s ironic then that she found a lump in her breast during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 2018. At the time she was suffering anxiety and having panic attacks. Were it not for her friend Delaney Tabron, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, she might not have gone to her GP.
“I had this niggling voice in my head saying if you don’t go it could be worse. And then I thought Delaney will kill me if I don’t.”
Her GP referred her for a mammogram and ultrasound. Which led to a biopsy.
“Waiting for the diagnosis was one of the worst things, to be honest. You’re catastrophising and worrying about how you will deal with what comes next – you think of the worst-case scenario,” she says.
“When I finally had a call from my GP I was relieved. She said look, it’s [the biopsy results] come back, and it’s cancer.”
Sarah had to Google what “metastasising” meant, then along with her film editor husband Luke Haigh, she popped a bottle of champagne. She laughs heartily as she tells the story.
“I just thought why not? It’s summer. If not now then when? And I needed a drink!”
Within weeks her treatment plan was set and she began chemotherapy. She talks matter of factly about the process.
“I did chemo then had a mastectomy with an immediate reconstruction. I think psychologically, going to sleep with a boob and waking up with a boob was really helpful.”
She used a cold-cap to save her hair, allowing her to travel though life as someone who was very sick but didn’t look sick. She focused on the positives but she allows herself the truth that it was a “rollercoaster”.
“Every time I knew I’d be going into a new treatment I tried to prepare myself. I gave my surgeon a list of positive affirmations to read while I was unconscious because I approached it as – ‘You know what? I’ll do anything at this point’.”
Going into radiation, she said she prepared herself for burns. “My boobs were a little bit red but I was super lucky in my response from radiation. I researched my butt off to keep my head in check.”
She was terrified of vomiting during chemo but found anti-nausea medication worked well. “I felt like I was given so many tools to get me through the side effects of chemo. It felt like whenever something came up, I’d have help to handle it.”
The day before level four lockdown began in March this year, Sarah had her final active treatment. She will continue to take a pill each day for about 10 years, but she is cancer free. She could have easily been one of the 650 women we lose every year to breast cancer but for her friend Delaney. Now she is that friend for other women.
Just as Delaney’s story made her see a GP, Sarah wants her story to inspire you, reading this, to do the same. There are nine symptoms and signs of breast cancer. Breast Cancer Foundation NZ has an app you can download and a page on their website to talk you through a self-exam. The new Change and Check stickers in change rooms and gyms around New Zealand also show each symptom.
“Even as a diagnosed breast cancer patient, I didn’t know all the risks. I didn’t know a rash was a symptom. If I’d had a rash I would have thought, ‘that’s a weird rash, I’ll change my laundry detergent’. I wouldn’t have thought: breast cancer.”
The New Zealand mammogram screening programme for women aged 45 years and older made her believe “until I’m that age, I don’t have to worry about it”.
She is not alone in thinking this. Breast Cancer Foundation NZ research found one in six New Zealand women under 45 never check their breasts for changes. “Not knowing how” is the number one reason why they don’t self-check. A survey found 37% of women under 45 don’t know what to look for when checking their breasts, compared to only 8% of women 45 and older. Only 12% of women under 45 could correctly name all of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
Worryingly, nearly one in eight respondents under 45 have ignored a lump or other symptom, rather than getting checked out by a doctor.
“That was me, 100% not knowing the signs and symptoms. I know the signs of a cold but not the signs of breast cancer. I want people to know. Even if they never need to use that information.”
She believes it’s possible she may have had her cancer diagnosed earlier if she’d known all the symptoms.
“In retrospect I had some weird sharp pains and I just chalked that up to weird boob pain because boobs are weird! I don’t know where the myth began, but there’s a myth that breast cancer can’t cause pain. But it can. I caught it at stage three, which is good but not great. So many people say the same thing to me – ‘I didn’t know’.”
Sarah and Breast Cancer Foundation NZ hope to get the Change and Check stickers “everywhere”. Farmers, Flo & Frankie, Glassons, NZ Tennis, Olympic Pools & Fitness, Papinelle Sleepwear and Swanndri have all agreed to stick them in their changing rooms. The stickers, designed by Delaney in a lovely piece of symmetry to Sarah’s story, list the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
“Gyms, spas, massage clinics, shops – they can all put up the stickers in their changing rooms. We will send them out to people for free.”
Sarah’s case shows breast cancer can happen to anyone. She was young, fit and healthy, with no family history of breast cancer. This is not where she thought she’d be in 2020, but it’s clear that this path she is on is a crucial one.
And thank goodness she’s here with us so we can walk alongside her.