Episode 25: Sally Obermeder on her breast cancer journey
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Let’s be Upfront about breast cancer in young women. Well known TV personality and business owner Sally Obermeder was 40 weeks pregnant with her first child when she was diagnosed with triple negative Stage 3 breast cancer. One week after her daughter was born, she returned to hospital to begin chemotherapy.
In this episode, Sally speaks candidly about her personal experience; from diagnosis to treatment, including her decision to use a surrogate for her second child.
This episode covers:
- the shock and emotional impact of diagnosis
- the effect of diagnosis on relationships and the importance of a support network
- finding joy and happiness in dark times and being honest with yourself and others throughout
- the experience of treatment and post-treatment, including decisions around surgery
- the impact of diagnosis, treatment and surgery on body image and self-confidence
- fertility and surrogacy.
Upfront About Breast Cancer is a production of Breast Cancer Network Australia. Our theme music is by the late Tara Simmons, and this episode is proudly brought to you by Sussan.
Kellie Curtain [00:00:04] Let's be upfront about young women with breast cancer and how their challenges and considerations differ from older women with the disease. For women under 40, a breast cancer diagnosis can have a huge impact on their body image and discussions about fertility before treatment are really important, regardless of whether you've decided to have children in the future or not. And what about after treatment? Returning to work, relationships and pregnancy? It's not easy. One woman who knows all about these challenges, having lived them, is Sally Obermeder. Sally is a well-known TV presenter and co-founder of the enormously successful fashion, beauty and lifestyle website, and online store, SWIISH. It all sounds really glamorous, but Sally isn't afraid to talk about the tough times she went through. And we're delighted to have her on upfront today. Welcome, Sally.
Sally Obermeder [00:00:55] Hey, thanks so much for having me.
Kellie Curtain [00:00:58] It's great to speak to you. When you were diagnosed with breast cancer, you were pregnant with your first child. Can you take us through how you dealt with that shock?
Sally Obermeder [00:01:12] I was, I was basically 40 weeks pregnant - a touch overdue. I felt really healthy. I felt, well, I'd had a great pregnancy. It was enjoyable, I had heaps of energy, I didn't feel sick, I didn't feel anything, actually. And I was at a routine appointment with my obstetrician when I mentioned that I had a lump in my breast, which I presumed was my body getting ready for breast feeding. I was like, it's probably a blocked milk duct. I mean, cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. I have no family history of it. I didn't really know anyone who'd ever had it. It was just not on my radar at all. So when I went to my breast cancer check the following day, it still wasn't on my mind. They did a mammogram and they did a biopsy and another biopsy. And I just was in a bubble where I just didn't think anything, and when the lady sat me down, Marcus at this stage had joined us, and said, 'listen, you have a very aggressive cancer and we're going to make you have this baby tomorrow and you'll have to start treatment. You need chemotherapy basically within the week.' It's like the world just fell out from under me. And it was a terrible way to have a baby. I do think I might have asked a question about what if I want to have another baby? And it was pretty quickly look, I don't say shut down because that's that makes it sound like they didn't care, but it was like, 'listen, you have to survive first. First we've got to get you to live.' And then that was it. At that point, then I realised, this is not something I can be like, 'oh, I want to what my options might be around this,’ it was like, listen, this is it. This is make or break, now.
Kellie Curtain [00:03:16] So. With having had Annabelle, I assume your husband had to step up and take care of a newborn? Did your hopes of breastfeeding and all those other first week things go out the door?
Sally Obermeder [00:03:31] Yeah, the first everything was out the door, basically. So breastfeeding wise, they let me do one feed, it was the colostrum feed. And then that was it, they said 'you have to take the pill now to stop the milk coming in', and that was quite heartbreaking. And I think that's sort of the one of the things that happens; it's not that in isolation by itself that is deeply heartbreaking, it's just a series of things that keep happening when you're on this rollercoaster. Things that happen every day; things that get taken from you.
Kellie Curtain [00:04:10] So, this must have had a devastating effect on you as a young couple, too.
Sally Obermeder [00:04:17] Yeah, definitely, I mean, it definitely changed us. It was good because we didn't pull apart, we pulled together. We were very blessed to have a lot of support from my sister, who I am incredibly close to. My mum and dad were amazing. And I have a great group of girlfriends that also really rallied around me and us and so that was really helpful. And I think also what was good was that Marcus, was and is very emotional and very understanding and very empathetic. So I think that that was helpful. But the strain is still huge. I think the strain is huge anyway, when you've got a new baby and the sleeplessness and the up all night and all that kind of stuff, but it's balanced by the joy.
Kellie Curtain [00:05:06] So, what did bring you joy during that time, even though it was a very difficult time?
Sally Obermeder [00:05:12] The thing that I think just gave me the most peace and joy was being able to hold Annabelle. And it was whenever I needed almost like an injection of happiness, I would just hold her so tight. And I think in those moments, say I fell asleep in the chair with her in my arms, I would forget that there was anything going on, you know. And I was able to once I initially got over my self-perceived shame of asking for help, I actually became quite good at saying 'here's what I need.' I really made a point of saying, what is it that would make me happy in a time of seemingly otherwise a lot of unhappiness? What would make me happy? I'm a big foodie. I love a restaurant, and I still wanted to go out in a particular in my kind of non-chemo cycles. I'd be like 'okay, girls, can we please go for a girls lunch? And can we please still go out?' Or I really am a massive movie buff. So I would be like, 'can we please get together and watch a movie or can someone come and sit with me on the couch?' And so I was asking people for what I needed, and not what they thought I might need, which helped them but it also helped me because I was like, 'I'm going to feed my soul with stuff that makes me happy. I can't control a lot of things, but I can control the stuff that gives me joy. And I'm going to actively not only seek it out, but I'm going to actively ask the people around me to help me create that for myself.'
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Kellie Curtain [00:07:00] How long was your treatment for?
Kellie Curtain [00:07:03] I had chemo. So the first thing that I had was chemo for around about nine months, I did three months and then she said to me, 'it's not enough, you need to do another six.' And that was really tough. It was really tough because I felt like the goalposts had moved. And it's really hard to go, I've still got so much more of this to go.
Kellie Curtain [00:07:34] And I think that's quite common for a lot of women; that that's what the medical professionals do. They have to sometimes change the goalposts in your best interests. But when you've already set your mind to either a certain date or a certain regime, it can be destabilising, can't it?
Sally Obermeder [00:07:52] Completely destabilising yeah, I think that's such a good word because you sort of, I remember I felt like I was literally crawling to the finish line of what I thought was the last chemo. And then to hear there's still another, I think she might have split it up into three months and then another three months. I'm a little hazy now, but I just remember there being another six after that. But it's really hard because it doesn't get any easier, you know, and I think that's the hard part. You have to voluntarily choose to go to the chemo. No one's gonna drag you there. No one's going to make you do it. You have to choose. You've got to choose to go. And you've got to find the strength within you to go and to front up and to keep going. And that's the hard part. You know, that's the really hard part. You've got to just keep going.
Kellie Curtain [00:08:43] Now, you required a double mastectomy. Was that before the chemo, or after?
Sally Obermeder [00:08:48] So I did the chemo first. Then I did a single mastectomy on the right side, which was the side with the lump. Then I did my radiation. Then I came back and had a mastectomy on the other side. And then the recon.
Kellie Curtain [00:09:04] And why didn't you have the double at the same time? Was it not a possibility?
Sally Obermeder [00:09:09] Yeah, it wasn't a possibility because I was just too weak. Essentially, I was way too weak after all the chemo. And I wanted to have the recon at the same time as the mastectomy, because I was really, as I think most people do, just struggling with the idea of a mastectomy. I really struggled and I found it so hard to wrap my head around this notion of essentially having your breasts cut off, you know. That was really hard for me. And I had asked at the time I was like, well, I could probably get my head around if I can have the mastectomy and the reconstruction at the same time. But that was a no go.
Kellie Curtain [00:09:57] Either way, obviously, with someone being young, body image is just another sort of slap in the face, isn't it? When it comes to having to have your breasts removed and then you've also had to exist with just one breast for six months. Is that right?
Sally Obermeder [00:10:17] It was. I had a period of... Must have been a bit under six months probably. And yes, that was really, really, really hard. And I think way harder than I realised was the shame that I felt, which I think is a surprising emotion. So in the chemo period, I'd lost my hair. I'd lost my eyelashes. I'd lost my eyebrows. I already felt like I'd lost my entire identity. I felt like I didn't look like myself. I didn't feel like myself. To have this emotion, which I definitely was not prepared for, so I expected to feel awkward, I expected to feel kind of botched - not saying that the surgery was botched - but I expected to feel botched, you know, having one breast taken off and one still there. But the emotion I didn't expect was shame. And I somehow felt ashamed, as though... I don't know why. I don't I don't know why I felt ashamed. And I remember this one particular day walking down my local street to get a coffee and I had a cardigan on that I kept kind of pulling over my breast, like where the breast was taken, even though it was already covered. I kept pulling it over and over and I was sort of saying to myself, I'm so ashamed, I'm so ashamed. And then I was like, well, but why?
Kellie Curtain [00:11:45] As if it was somehow your doing!
Sally Obermeder [00:11:47] As if it was somehow my doing and I was having an inner dialogue. It was like 'well, if I now walked past the street and saw somebody with an arm missing or leg missing, what feeling would I have towards them? Would I think they should be ashamed?' I was like, well, no, I wouldn't. But yet somehow I feel ashamed that I'm less of a person, that I'm less of a woman. And I wasn't even referring to within my relationship, I just meant generally as a person, I felt like less than. And it was a very confronting feeling. And I was like, if this was your best friend, you'd be saying, 'you're mad, you're not less than anything, you're just as perfect as you were before.' So, yeah, it was an interesting one to grapple with. And I definitely grappled with it. And it took me a little while to wrap my head around that this is now me. And there's a period where I think you have to go through the grief before you get to the acceptance, like, okay, this is just me now.
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Kellie Curtain [00:13:15] So. you've certainly hit a rock bottom, there's no doubt about it. Things appear like they couldn't have got any worse. How did you manage to get up again to the point that you were ready to consider having another baby?
Sally Obermeder [00:13:35] It's funny. Like, time is a bit of a healer. It's not a complete healer, because I do think in a sense, the trauma stays with you. It just kind of bubbles away under the surface, seemingly as if it's not there, but it kind of is there. But it is a little bit of a healer in that it does allow you to get that acceptance. The more time that passes, the more you go 'okay, this is now me, scars and all. All of it.' You know, I look at myself in the mirror and I'm like, 'wow, there are so many scars in here,' you know, but that's just who I am. And so then you start to go, 'okay, but who am I on the inside and what is it that's important to me?' And for me what was really important was to try to have another child. And then when Marcus and I first talked about it, he was like 'well, look, why don't we just sort of give it a breath and just see where we're at?' I think I might have raised it pretty early, like, once I got the all clear. But it didn't matter how much time I let pass, my desire for it, just didn't wane. And I think it also helped that Annabelle really wanted a sibling, she was always saying, 'I really want a brother or sister. I really want a sibling. Everyone else has one. I really want one.' So I think that also was a factor. Like, I'm incredibly close to my sister. And so I thought, well, I have those embryos. If I didn't have them, I would have let it go. But I had the embryo. So it's like, well, it's just here waiting.
Kellie Curtain [00:15:20] And then. Another baby girl.
Sally Obermeder [00:15:23] Another baby girl. I have two beautiful girls, two girls, they're five years apart because it took a while for the surrogate process to work. And that process, I think, sometimes people say things, you know, well, intentionally, like 'oh a surrogate, like, it's so easy, you don't have to carry' or 'how awesome! You don't put on any baby weight' or whatever. But while I feel very fortunate, very fortunate to have been able to have a child via a surrogate, I do still feel...
Kellie Curtain [00:16:03] That wasn't your choice either.
Sally Obermeder [00:16:04] Yeah, totally. I loved being pregnant. I feel so sad, and I think particularly because the first pregnancy ended, you know, in such a sort of bad way, and I didn't get that new motherhood experience. I also I think I was keen to have another turn and have it go right. So this was the best compromise. And you know what? It was one of the most joyous experiences. And when people ask me, you know, do you recommend having a surrogate? I say wholeheartedly, hand on heart, it's the best thing I've ever done.
Kellie Curtain [00:16:41] I guess for women that are about to undergo treatment who are young, it really is important to consider future pregnancies. And whilst that wasn't an option for you, it is still a really important discussion to have, though, isn't it? And it's amazing how even though you've just given birth, your immediate reaction was like, am I going to be able to have anymore?
Sally Obermeder [00:17:04] That's right. And I do think it is really, really important. I think it's so important because even though at the time you might be in the midst of thinking it doesn't matter, you should still ask the question because you want to have all your options. When you're further down the track and the immediacy of treatment and you're through it, you know, then you'll want to know, 'yep I'm glad I ask the questions. I'm glad I got my options. I'm glad I saved my eggs. Or even if I didn't. I'm still glad I asked. I'm glad I did. I'm glad I knew what my options were. I don't look back with regret.' And I do think that's really important.
Kellie Curtain [00:17:47] So we've talked a bit about body image and like you are saying, people are very well-meaning, It must be very easy for members of the community, even your friends, to look at you now and go, wow, isn't your life a dream? And it all looks so shiny on the outside. But like you said, you have changed. What are some of the things that still worry you if in fact they do? Do you worry about recurrence? How do you stay positive?
Sally Obermeder [00:18:19] Yeah, I do worry about recurrence. Definitely. Like I said, I think it's a bit under the surface most days, you know, I certainly don't consciously think of it unless I'm triggered by something. But assuming, I'll separate it out, assuming there's no trigger, it's kind of just below the surface; I sort of think about it too much. But what I do find is it has just changed my outlook and therefore that changes all of my actions. So I'm very conscious now of life being short. Nothing being a given. Nothing's a guarantee. Whereas I think a little bit before cancer, I was like 'oh, I'll live to 95, I'll have like 10 kids and 400 grandkids and I'll be on my porch in my rocking chair.' I just had a very optimistic outlook for a length of life and a health of life. Whereas now I totally feel like I have no idea what tomorrow brings, because I remember the day I was diagnosed was very much like any other fab morning; I got up, I made a coffee, you know, like it's just very normal. And yet the world can fall out from under you on any given day. I work and we do the news every single day and every day my thought is 'all of those people did not know that that's how their day would end.' Very much like when you get your cancer diagnosis, you just don't know that that's happening to you that day, you know? And so now for me, what it does is it drives all of my decision making into, is this for the greater good? Is this something that makes me happy? Is this for the good of my family? You know, is this something that I'll be proud of when I put my head on the pillow tonight and go, yep, I did something wonderful. These are things that drive my decision making. In a way, I'm also much more brave and much more fearless because I'm like 'I ain't got no time, ain't got no time to be second guessing stuff!' But I'm also filled with a deep gratitude because every day that I have is a day I didn't think I'd get. And that is with me very, very deeply. And then in terms of being triggered. Well, if I get triggered I'm like anyone, you know, I can be a heaving mess. I lost a friend last year to ovarian cancer. And it was so upsetting. If I go to visit somebody, sometimes a friend who's had a baby in the maternity ward that can be surprisingly triggering. Sometimes certain smells, every now and then randomly I'll say to Marcus, 'oh my God, I can smell chemo', because when I was doing chemo, I could smell the chemo coming out of my skin. It would be the smell that he couldn't smell and no one else could smell but I could smell it and it would drive me crazy and I'd be scrubbing my body trying to get this, what I felt was like this chemo stench off and I suspect was probably in my nostrils. And every now and then randomly, I'll be like 'I can smell chemo. Oh, my God, I can smell it.' But there isn't anything. It's obviously just latent trauma that's just under the surface somewhere. And it will send me into a little bit of a meltdown, I'll cry about it, I'll be like, that was shit, you know? And then I'll pick myself back up and go, well, I'm lucky to be alive. And off I go.
Kellie Curtain [00:21:52] So. there would undoubtedly be many women listening to you who are actually in the thick of it or are at some other stage along their timeline. What are some of the things that you've learnt that you could share with them? Because there's nothing like someone that actually gets it.
Sally Obermeder [00:22:13] Yeah, I get it. I would say speak up for what you want and need from your family and friends. Because I think as women we are used to nurturing and caring for other people. So part of us is like no, don't worry about that, that's my job. Or we don't want to appear troublesome or a burden or any of those things. And I found this very hard. Because I also didn't want to be 'the cancer person' in my group of friends or whatever. But I learnt, maybe because I had a baby I was like I just have got to put this kind of pride or this kind of, I don't know, whatever it was aside and I've got to just be able to say 'this is what I need. I need you to come and sit with me while I watch a movie. I need you to come in and listen to me talk about how I'm afraid or I need you to come and sit with me. But please, let's not talk about cancer.' Just say what it is you need, because the people who love you are desperately scratching their head, trying to think of what they can do to love and support you. And their love and support is helpful. It's not medicine, but it's helpful. It's the pixie dust, you know, and you need it to power you on to keep going through your treatment because treatment's shit and you need that love. And so just tell them, they just want to know. So I think that's really important. And I think also just being kind to ourselves. If you are feeling like, you know what, I'm doing my treatment, I do not want to cook because the stench of cooking is making me feel sick from the chemo or whatever, just say it, and take whatever you need to get yourself through it. I also am big on going to therapy in this particular time, because I think it's such a complicated time and it's filled with so much emotion. And I do feel like as much as you can off load onto the people you love, you naturally have a resistant barrier because you don't want to worry them, hurt them. You can't say all the things that you probably want to say. And I think having an impartial person that you can dump on is so healthy for your treatment.
Kellie Curtain [00:24:40] Well, thank you, Sally, for being so upfront with us today, but also for being a longtime supporter of BCNA.
Sally Obermeder [00:24:47] Anything for you guys. You guys were there for me during my journey, and I would never... I could never repay you enough. So if there's ever anything I can do and you know what? I think this is one of those things that we're all in together. You know, we really are. The sisterhood is in this together.
Kellie Curtain [00:25:05] Thanks, Sally. And if you'd like more information about young women and breast cancer, download BCNA's My Journey online tool. There's also a fantastic video resource specifically on fertility that you can find on our website, BCNA dot org dot AU. This episode of Upfront is with thanks to Sussan. And the opinions of all our guests are welcome, but not necessarily shared by BCNA. For any individual concerns or advice, please contact your health team. You can help others find us by leaving a review wherever you have downloaded this podcast. I'm Kellie Curtain. It's good to be upfront with you.