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“I can finally breathe again”

TV presenter, author, mum and businesswoman, Sally Obermeder, reveals what it feels like to reach her biggest health milestone yet. 

Photo: Damian Bennett

A lot can happen in five years, something Sally Obermeder, 44, knows more than most.

In that time, she’s become a mum to two gorgeous girls, Annabelle, 5, and Elyssa, 9 months, published four books, opened an online fashion boutique, and become a firm fan favourite on the desk of Seven Network’s The Daily Edition. But perhaps her biggest feat has been triumphing over a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer and passing the much longed for five-year-clear mark.

“I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for five years and I can finally breathe properly again,” she says. “There’s always a low-level anxiety you live with – will it come back? Is this going to be it? – especially before a scan. I know the routine well but the inner dialogue and emotion is so full on, I was nervous going to that scan and when it came back clear… My gosh, the relief!”

That said, the pain of what she’s been through is something Sally acknowledges that deep down will never really go away.

“It’s a part of who I am and it doesn’t take a lot for it all to come to the surface,” she admits. “I get teary when I’m speaking sometimes and surprise myself. I’m like ‘Come on, pull it together. Why are you still like this? It’s been five years… Stop crying!’ But it’s still very raw and very real.”

Much has been written about Sally’s cancer journey, which began in October 2011, the day before Annabelle was born.

It struck at a time when life couldn’t have been better – dream job, dream family on the way, even a book deal. Her year-long battle with the disease, which involved eight months of intense chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, was played out very much in the public eye.

“I remember thinking, if I’m going to go through this I want to speak about it, because I didn’t really know where to go,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone who’d had it and I needed someone’s steps to follow, to know what other people did to cope.

“But it doesn’t matter if you’re in the public eye or not, when you go through cancer treatment you’re very openly sick.

I’d see the pity and sadness wash over people’s eyes when I went out to get bread or milk with my baby. And I found it really hard to feel normal when the whole world was going on and I was in this bubble of chemo. I’d hear people say things like ‘Oh, next summer I’m doing this’ and I’d think, I don’t know if I’ll even be alive next summer.”

“There’s always a low-level anxiety that you live with will it come back? Is this going to be it?”

But Sally did live to see another summer and she’s now healthier than ever and embracing every day.

“Because my prognosis wasn’t that good, I was always focused on getting through each stage – surgery, treatment, the first year, the big periods where recurrence is most common in years two and three. But ultimately anyone who’s gone through cancer hopes they can get to that five year mark – which is funny, because it doesn’t mean you’re immune from anything,” she says.

“But since I got the initial all-clear [in 2012] I’ve always lived every day like I’ll live forever but also like it’s my last, because I really get that it could be, but I also don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I can only assume it will all be OK and go forward with my life.”

It’s this appreciation for every day that’s fuelled Sally’s ambition – both personally and professionally – and driven her to achieve so much since that first diagnosis.

“You go through a lot when you’re in treatment and surgery, emotionally and physically, and afterwards you have to think about rebuilding. How do you rebuild your life in a way that’s true to you? And I really did feel like I needed to rebuild. [The experience] made me question ‘What is it that I love? What is it that I’m connected to? What is it that I want to do with my life?’ Because you don’t ever want to die wondering – I wanted to just go for it.”

And go for it she did, with her career taking off both on and off screen. But the highlight came nine months ago, when Sally and her husband, Marcus, welcomed baby Elyssa, who was born via a surrogate after doctors said another pregnancy would put Sally’s life at risk.

“We celebrated [five years all clear] by having Elyssa!” she says. “We really felt like it was a new beginning for us.”

And while the joy and relief that comes with reaching such a milestone in her recovery is undeniable, it’s also brought with it an unexpected emotion: guilt.

“The thing I’ve really noticed after reaching the five-year mark is survivor guilt. You know how blessed you are to have made it but it makes you deeply aware of all the other people who haven’t and how unfair that is. You want everyone to get to that point, so if anything it makes you realise how important it is that we find a cure,” she says.

It’s no surprise then to learn that Sally continues to work tirelessly to help raise awareness of female cancers and the vital funds needed for research. “If I can help one person, then it was worth it. I believe that firmly,” she says. “I’m always so touched when people say ‘I read your book when I was going through cancer’ or ‘I picked up your smoothie book afterwards when I wanted to feel better’ because everything I’ve ever done has come from a place of love and compassion and having been through something so shit.

“You know what? One in three people will get cancer. You realise this isn’t just something that affects a few people.

If you’re fortunate enough to not know anyone who has it, then fantastic. But what I really hope is that eventually none of us will know anyone who has it, and we’ll be able to say ‘Cancer? Who even gets that anymore?’ Until we get to that point we all just have to keep on doing our bit.”

5 years clear: What does it really mean?

The five-year scan is calculated from the date of the patient’s initial cancer diagnosis. Of those who are diagnosed with breast cancer, 90 per cent will live beyond five years, according to Australian Government statistics.

However, now that experts understand how differently breast cancers can behave, the five-year mark isn’t as important a milestone as it once was.

“We now know that some types of breast cancer tend to recur early, but for other types, the risk of recurrence persists past five years and beyond,” associate professor Elgene Lim, head of the breast cancer research laboratory at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, says. “I always tell my patients to remain vigilant.”

The TV presenter swears by BioOil during pregancy.

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