Ari Chavez chats with Sally Obermeder about beating cancer, thriving on green smoothies and most importantly to Sally, being mum to three year old Annabelle, amidst a high profile career.
Words Joy Ong
Sally Obermeder knows her way around a curve ball or two. In October 2011, the bubbly author, a National Entertainment and Lifestyle Reporter for Today Tonight was on top of the world. Her career was thriving and she loved her work but, most importantly, the then-37 year old was 41 weeks pregnant with a longed for baby, a successful IVF attempt after many years of trying to conceive naturally with her husband of a decade, Marcus.
Preoccupied with the imminent birth of Annabelle, Sally paid little attending to the nagging pain in her breast, and a small amount of skin puckering, believing the changes in her body were pregnancy-related. After a routine check from her obstetrician, however, she was referred for urgent scans and a biopsy.
The results were grim. Sally had a rare and aggressive form of Stage 3 breast cancer, and the medical advice was to start chemotherapy immediately. Sally needed to give birth as a priority, so she was induced while oncologists undertook further testing throughout her labour.
"Reeling from shock, Sally gave birth to Annabelle just one day after her cancer diagnosis. Ten days later, she started aggressive medical intervention."
Ultimately, Sally’s treatment involved eight months of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.
The chemo, she said publically, was like being “nuclear bombed”. Her nails fell off, her mouth and throat ulcerated, she lost her hair and eyebrows and the ache in her bones was so relentless she could not lie down. The double mastectomy triggered such feelings of grief and shame, she revealed at the time that she felt “unworthy of being in the world.”
And all the while there was Annabelle, baby Annabelle, who needed feeding and changing and cuddling. Sally was too sick from her treatment to do it and, even if she could summon up the energy to kiss her baby, she was forbidden from doing so as the chemotherapy was too toxic for the newborn. It was a painful reality, another loss.
“I can’t get up in the night to feed Annabelle or change her during the days of chemotherapy treatment,” the popular media personality told The Australian Women’s Weekly not long after Annabelle’s birth.
“This is not how it’s supposed to be. She is supposed to know that I am there for her no matter what, not just when the cancer allows. And I hate the cancer for that. Because I feel like it has taken something precious from me and from my baby girl.
“This is something I have wanted my whole life, and now that I have it, I feel like it’s completely compromised. I thought I would be in this baby-and-me bubble. It would just be us, and it would be so beautiful. But instead there’s me and the cancer in one bubble and me and Annabelle in the other bubble, and I just keep shuffling between the two.”
Finally, twelve months later, Sally was given the all clear. She was completely cancer free.
Sally struggled on with her treatment, which at times was so debilitating it took all of her mental strength to continue with it. Courageously, she raised awareness of breast cancer by making public appearances and attending industry events, either with a wig or bald. Finally, twelve months later, Sally was given the all clear. She was completely cancer free.
It had been a brutal battle, but Sally had won it and, determined to restore her chemo-ravaged body to health, she set about pursuing a healthier lifestyle. Key to this was her love of green smoothies, a healthy blend of vegetables, fruits and super foods, which have boosted her energy levels, and helped her lose 15 kilograms, weight she gained due to eating to help fight nausea and sickness caused by the chemotherapy. The smoothie ingredients, which can include any fruits or vegetables, are blended with water or nut milks or cow’s milk, ensuring all the fibre and nutrients are consumed.
Such is her belief in the health benefits of green smoothies, Sally has written a book, with her sister, Maha Koraiem, Super Green Smoothies (Allen & Unwin, $19.99), which includes loads of recipes and tips for the smoothie lifestyle.
“We have been drinking green smoothies for about a year and a half now, and we wanted to include our favourite recipes, the ones we absolutely love that we knew other people would love,” Sally explains, enthusiastically.
“We really tried to think about what is it that’s important to us and to other people, and usually it’s weight loss, so we have a whole section on weight loss, we have a specific kids section because Mums want to know how to get veggies into their kids’ diets and we did a section for people who are just starting out and just want to settle in. We really worked the book to start simple and then get a little bit harder and add a few more ingredients. We wanted people to start to love smoothies and have it for your lifestyle like it is for us.
You’re not juicing, it’s in a blender. You get all the fibre, you get the entire vegetable, you get all of it.
Coming off the back of such aggressive medical intervention, and as a busy working mum juggling numerous demands on her time, Sally was searching for something to boost and sustain her energy levels throughout the day. The rainbow plate of fruit ‘n’ veg that makes its way into her morning smoothie has proven to be the answer, and she does indeed radiate health.
“My energy levels are incredible,” she says. “That’s the thing, suddenly you are not reliant on five coffees a day, and you’re not suddenly going, ‘when is it three o’clock so I can have a coffee? Oh my gosh, how can I prop myself up with sugar?’ The thing that happens, and you notice it straight away, is that you want good food, you don’t want sugar and you don’t really want crap anymore. Then you start to get this buzz.
“I think it’s because if you put it on a plate and look at how many vegetables you’re having, you wouldn’t have that much. You wouldn’t have two cups of spinach, a handful of broccoli, you’re not going to have kale as well, you’re not going to have quarter of an avocado or half an avocado, a banana, a lime, coconut so you are having all these vegetables, some fruit, some super foods. So you’re suddenly going, ‘Well, this is actually really good for you,’ and when would you do this? Probably not ever. Certainly not at the beginning of the day.”
Sally is clear about the benefits of blending versus juicing, believing blending wins hands down in the health-boosting stakes.
"The things that happens, and you notice it straight away, is that you want good food, you don't want sugar and you really don't want crap anymore. Then you start to get this buzz."
“You’re not juicing, it’s in a blender,” she explains, firmly. “You get all the fibre, you get the entire vegetable, you get all of it. That’s why it’s so good for your digestion. I think if you’re juicing, and there’s a lot of people who love juicing and swear by it, I think what happens is you don’t get the fibre, you don’t get the bulk, you are only extracting part of it. You’re not getting the whole vegetable. It’s just like eating it [fruit and vegetables] only you couldn’t eat this many!”
Sally’s changed approach to diet, and her resulting good health, is only one of many changes being a cancer survivor has wrought. The eight months of gruelling chemotherapy, the double mastectomy, the hours lying on the tiles in the shower unable to move, the inability to kiss her longed-for baby have changed her irrevocably. Time is now a precious commodity, something she does not waste.
“That whole experience of having cancer has completely changed my outlook on life – motherhood and everything else outside motherhood. I was grateful before, I have always been a grateful person, but I am far more grateful because I appreciate that it’s not a given that you’re just going to live until ninety,” she explains.
“Sometimes, when you’re younger, you’re just in a bubble where you assume your life will play out in a certain way, and when something shocking like that happens and then you come so close to dying, you really realise, ‘oh, actually this is not a given anymore and every day I am on this planet is actually a gift’.
You choose how you want to spend it and who you want to spend it with. You really re-evaluate that. You think, what is it that is important to me, what is it that I want to do with my time because time is not infinite…You really value your time and it becomes so precious because you realise there is not endless amounts of it.”
One of Sally’s key priorities is to spend as much time as possible with her beloved daughter, Annabelle. Sally, a naturally warm and engaging woman, literally lights up when talking about her daughter.
“She is hilarious and amazing, like they all are, and it’s such a fun age…she’s three and a half now. It’s a really fun time, we do Adventure Wednesdays and we wander around and we create our own adventures, and we talk and talk and it’s just beautiful,” she says, proudly.
I think it [motherhood] has made me a lot more present because you just have to be. They are so interesting, they demand so much of you, you don't drift off I find, you are really in the moment.
“I think it [motherhood] has made me a lot more present because you just have to be. They are so interesting, they demand so much of your time, you don’t drift off I find, you are really in the moment. If you are playing with them or you are in the park or you’re running around, that’s just what you’re doing and it’s good because it keeps you focused.”
Despite her obvious pleasure in family life, Sally is not immune from the common complaint that mothers typically carry the thought load of the family, the mental lists of commitments, meals, groceries, bills, laundry and housework, and the mental exhaustion this can bring.
“It’s hard being a mum, it just is hard. There are so many demands on you. Sometimes I’ll say to [husband] Marcus, ‘I’m so jealous because you’re so helpful with everything but ultimately you’re not the general manager of the house or whatever’. If I say, ‘Hey Babe, tomorrow can you get the groceries’ then yes, he will do it, but guess what? There’s a step before that, and that is he didn’t have to think of anything that led up to that moment.
“Most mums I know, working mums and non-working mums, it’s them that that falls on, the planning and organisation and orchestration of the family – who is going where, and when and at what time, and the flow on effect of everything – and that is exhausting when you are a mum. It is. My girlfriends and I call it pinging because your brain is always pinging with everything you have to do.”
“Most mums I know, working mums and non-working mums, it’s them that that falls on, the planning and organisation and orchestration of the family."
“Sometimes I juggle it so well, and I’m like, ‘I’m such a rock star!’ and then the next week I am in tears every day thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is a disaster!’. I think I have learnt to accept that some weeks it goes to plan and some weeks it just doesn’t, and that’s the nature of life. It takes a long time to accept it.
“I had a real turning point late last year when I decided that I’m going to stop trying to have a set routine that I create on January the 1st that carries me through the whole year because I have finally accepted after ten years that the nature of my job is that it is a job with no routine, so I have gone, ‘Okay, I am going to stop trying to force it into a box and make it fit and then getting pissed off when it doesn’t fit. I am just going to look at this week on its own and next week on its own…and just keep it a little bit fluid’. Some weeks that means I work all day Saturday, some weeks that means I work five nights after Annabelle has gone to bed…I just fit it in as best I can for that week.”
The mind-boggling demands of juggling her high profile media career, her online store and authoring her books, have not distracted Sally from what requires her full and considered attention – Annabelle. When she is with her daughter, all the other demands on her time are put to one side and she focuses on the task at hand, mothering her child.