When broadcaster Sarah Gandy received her breast cancer diagnosis, she turned to two people who knew better than anyone what she was going through: her good friends Rebecca Wadey and Delaney Tabron.
This story first appeared on Ensemble magazine.
Broadcaster Sarah Gandy was inspired to conceive the Change and Check campaign she launched last month with Breast Cancer Foundation NZ after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. She received the news eighteen months after her friend Delaney Tabron was herself diagnosed, and Delaney was diagnosed after being struck by a conversation with Ensemble’s Rebecca Wadey about her own breast cancer.
Here Rebecca, Delaney and Sarah each share their personal breast cancer stories – and how they learned from, and leaned on, the friends who’d already been through it.
And remember: check your boobs, and learn how to take care of them here.
Rebecca Wadey, Ensemble co-founder
I lived in Melbourne for much of my early twenties. Always an avid consumer of pop-culture, I had an embarrassing addiction to the weekly women’s magazines; through them I became very familiar with the story of Belinda Emmett, the Home and Away star who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 at the age of 24. Belinda’s face was on every mag in town back then and I devoured every word of her story.
It stuck with me even as I moved home to Auckland. So when I found a lump in my breast in 2003 at the age of 26, I went straight to the doctor.
I was the sales and marketing manager at Kate Sylvester at the time, so as well as being crazy young for a breast cancer diagnosis, I was glamour adjacent. This made for many great news stories, usually focused on my ‘bravery’ and everything I’d lost. My breast, my hair, my youth, my innocence.
I never forgot the ‘bravery’ of Belinda, speaking so openly and frequently about something so heavy. And, when the opportunity came to speak about it myself, I felt a huge responsibility to do so. I never asked to be the poster girl for breast cancer but every time I was asked to talk about it in the media, I remembered Belinda and the impact she’d likely made on my outcome, and I’d feel compelled to speak too.
Early detection is still the best tool we have for survival. I will never stop advocating for early detection and for me, the most logical way to do this is to keep talking about my experience.
If my never shutting up about it normalises it to the point that young women check their breasts and seek medical advice on any abnormalities, that’s a win. And if one young woman finds a lump in her breast because of me, thus improving her outcome? Woah, what a trip.
I’ve known Delaney [Tabron] for most of the 20 odd years we’ve worked in the fashion industry. We became especially close when she became the art director of Metro magazine. I was the fashion editor and it meant we got to work together closely which was an absolute dream as she’s so stupidly talented and an incredible conduit of creative talent. I was devastated for me, but excited for her when she moved to LA.
In 2016 I was driving back to work after a meeting when I noticed I had a missed call and a text from her. “Wadey, please call me. I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer,” it said.
I remember everything about that conversation: how little and frightened her voice sounded, and how frustrated I was that I couldn’t hug her. I’ve spoken to many women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Several who’ve sought me out, as Delaney had done, immediately upon seeing their doctor. I had hugged all of them and was desperate to hug her, my beloved friend. But that feeling of helplessness, that people must feel when a loved one receives such a diagnosis? I never had to feel that. I asked questions, I decoded medical jargon, I could at least be there in a way that provided real, tangible solace.
I’ve done a lot of counselling over the past 17 years, and eventually realised that a lot of the trauma I’ve gone through with cancer is due to how isolating the disease can be. It was so lonely, and so scary. I know my husband would prefer it if I could pack cancer neatly into a shoebox and store it in the wardrobe along with all the pairs of designer heels I never wear (literally where I keep my old wig), just bringing it out each year for my annual mammogram. But that won’t help anyone, including me.
I’m 44 now and breast cancer is increasingly within my age group. The more I talk about it, the more I help to normalise being open about breast cancer, improving outcomes for young women and making people living with it feel less alone in the process.
Delaney Tabron, creative director
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 28, 2017. It was a Tuesday.
I met Rebecca years ago. I was working at a fashion magazine and used to go to a lot of industry events. I remember seeing her around and feeling intimidated because she was so glamorous and amazing. One day we started talking, and she was really funny, and I was like, “oh my gosh, I love her”.
Then we started working together at Metro. One day we drove to a photoshoot, and she told me all about her breast cancer experience. I remember everything: how she was hungover in the shower and how she found the lump. And I remember her saying to me, “you need to feel your breasts a lot so that you know what they feel like. That way you’ll know when you feel something different.” From that moment on, I would check myself every month while I was in the shower.
One Sunday morning a couple of years later, I was living in Los Angeles, lying in bed, hungover. I’d gone to bed too late and too tired to take off my bra. It was uncomfortably digging into me, and as I took it off, I felt the tiniest insignificant little lump. It was smaller than half a pea and soft. I could so easily have missed it. My boyfriend Matt checked it and couldn’t feel anything. I went to work the next day, and for some reason, it was like there was a fire under my chair. I thought of Rebecca, and I knew I had to get it checked.
I got to work at 9am and by 9.45am I had a doctor’s appointment. She explained that 90% of women my age get benign lumps, but she wanted me to see a specialist regardless.
She referred me to Angelina Jolie’s breast surgeon, Dr Kristi Funk – the one she’d recently written her op-ed for the New York Times with. The next day in her bright pink Beverly Hills office, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, you have breast cancer.” It all happened in two days. It was such a shock. I was healthy. I was too young. I had no family history.
I often think, would I be alive today if I hadn’t had that conversation with Rebecca in the car about how to check my breasts? Probably not.
It was a terrible time. We’d only been in LA a year. I had no family here, no friends. We didn’t know many people, and I was trying to navigate an absolutely insane medical system. It’s very different in America. You go to the doctor and because it’s so litigious, they tell you in great graphic detail everything that can go wrong. You have to sign 20 pages of forms saying, “we’re going to give you this treatment, and it might make you die on the spot, and you might have a cardiac arrest or a stroke, and we need you to sign this so your family can’t sue us if we kill you.” So comforting.
I was basically terrified all the time. It was really lonely and really hard and really expensive. I spent every cent I had, trying to pay for treatments so that I could stay alive.
I had lots of support from home, and I was very lucky that a few friends came over to visit. We timed a visit from Sarah (Gandy) and her husband Luke to be right in the middle of a chemo round when we knew I would be well enough for a few days to hang out.
After Rebecca had talked to me about her experience, I was determined to be very open about what I was going through and to make sure every friend knew to check their boobs every month, without fail. I’m like a broken record on repeat saying “please touch yourself all the time and know your body, so you’ll be more likely to find something out of the ordinary”.
Sarah visited again for New Year’s, and she told me about a lump she’d found on her breast. Her doctor had referred her for a mammogram but the wait time was 12 weeks. I was like “absolutely not, get that checked!”. So she had a biopsy as soon as she got back. My heart sank when my phone rang, and she told me she had breast cancer.
I felt so devastated this was happening to my friend and suddenly understood on a visceral level how my friends must have felt being so far away. I helped her find an oncologist in Auckland and prepared questions with her. I gave her all my tips and tricks. When I was having chemo, I would imagine I was at a health spa being injected with little ninjas that were going to run around my body and kill all the cancer and make me a shinier, healthier, better version of myself.
It might sound silly but it really helped to have a positive mindset to get through it. Watching Sarah deal with it all was incredible because she took that positivity to a whole other level. She just is that person naturally. I am completely in awe of her and hope in some small way, I helped her feel less afraid in the same way that Rebecca helped me.
Sarah Gandy, broadcaster
I vividly remember when Delaney messaged me from halfway around the world to tell me she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. My immediate reaction was that I didn’t like the idea of any world that she wasn’t in, and I promptly told her just that. In all honesty, I’m still not sure if that was the right thing to say, even after being through it now myself. People like to tell you their cancer stories: their aunt who had it, their mum, their nana. Unfortunately, a lot of these stories end with “she didn’t make it, sadly.” These are not the kind of pep talks you need when you’re staring your own mortality in the face. Go easy on the death chat, people.
Many months later, my husband and I visited Delaney and her partner Matt in LA. The plan was to go out for dinner. We’d managed to time it so we could get her on a “good” day. That meant Delaney could manage leaving the house for a few hours. She sat out in front of the restaurant, looking glamorous as ever with her wig and hat on, enjoying the company much more than the food. I was in awe of her ability to find the good in all of this. She called herself “lucky”. In her eyes, she’d found her cancer early and that meant that treatment was possible. That statement truly baffled me. Until I received my own diagnosis.
I found my lump in October 2018 (Breast Cancer Awareness month as it turns out – oh how the universe likes to laugh). I was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks at the time, and going through some pretty awful stuff at work, so it would have been really easy for me to ignore old lumpy boob. It was Delaney’s voice, in the back of my head, that told me I HAD to go to the doctor. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I would have caught my cancer in time.
I saw my GP that week, but the diagnosis took months. When I was finally diagnosed and a treatment plan was laid out, I dissected the choices I had with both Delaney and Rebecca. Having seen Delaney navigate her way through surgery, chemo and radiation, I had hope that I could do it too. Delaney and Rebecca became my breast cancer mentors, holding my hand each step of the way. It was kind of like a cancer-y Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
My hope is that the Change and Check campaign will be the voice in the back of people’s heads. Eighty-eight percent of Kiwi women under 45 don’t know the nine signs and symptoms of breast cancer. It’s the most common cancer for women. I thought pain wasn’t a sign of breast cancer (it is). I had no idea a rash could be a sign (it is). I never knew to check under my arm when checking my breasts (you should). I genuinely thought I was too young to really worry. Free mammograms aren’t a thing until you’re 45 so surely breast cancer isn’t either (you know where I’m going with this… it is). Knowing this information earlier can only be a good thing.
Change and Check was started by Breast Cancer Survivor Helen Addis in the UK. It has literally saved numerous lives. Thank you to the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ for seeing its value and helping to launch it here in New Zealand.
Delaney has lovingly designed stickers for Aotearoa and I would love to see them in as many changing rooms, bathrooms and on as many mirrors as possible. If you have a public spot where one could live, please tell us here and we can send you whatever you need for free.
I’m so grateful for Delaney and Rebecca. Know your normal, feel and look at yourself as much as you can and if you do find something, just know that there’s a sisterhood waiting to hold your hand, each step of the way.
Ngā Mihi, Kia Ora Koe.
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