Mel McLaughlin tells of her lingering grief
Ask most women and the thought of turning 40 isn't exactly an occasion for cartwheels and fireworks.
For Channel 7 sports presenter, Mel McLaughlin, the milestone loomed last month with a special pain and lingering feeling of dread.
Four years after losing her big sister Tara to lung cancer at just 39, McLaughlin - still grieving her death like it was yesterday - was overcome with guilt that she had reached the age her cherished sibling had not.
She'd had a hint of the emotional hangover a year before, when she turned 39 and woke that
the day in a furious mood.
"I'm not good at bad moods, I promise," the stunning sports anchor tells Stellar.
"I don't hold onto bad feelings, but I was still feeling so angry at what she went through. I got to my 39th birthday and thought, 'What [the hell]?'"
Her partner Ashley Westwood and younger sister Leanne did their best to help McLaughlin shake off the gloom by planning a surprise birthday party for her last month.
"They had been planning it all year," she says. "And I had not a bloody clue."
Rather than a room filled with her TV industry pals, McLaughlin was wrapped in the arms of her tight circle of old school friends, her best friend and beloved family - including Tara's husband Sean Tobin and their sons Harry and Flynn.
The gut-wrenching pain of losing a sister, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend in Tara, who
died in 2015, was eased a little that evening for those who loved the NSW police officer and former director of the NSW Police Legacy charity.
"Mum and Leanne and I just danced," McLaughlin says. "I don't think we've been that happy in years, to be honest. All just together."
For McLaughlin, the parting of the dark clouds of grief have been a long time coming - speaking today about her sister's death for the first time.
"It's your own pain, your own trauma and it's your own open wound that you feel like you can't share with the world."
Making things harder to reconcile, her sister's battle was plagued by misdiagnosis and the stigma which lingers for those suffering lung cancer - dismissed by many as the penance only smokers' face.
In fact, Lung Foundation Australia statistics show one in three women and one in 10 men diagnosed have no history of smoking; as was the case with Tara.
The earliest symptoms of her illness had presented in late 2012, when she first complained she was exhausted in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
"She'd miscarried five times before she had her boys," says McLaughlin. "And she never
complained. So when she said to me, 'Mel, I'm so tired,' I said to my little sister, Leanne, 'Something's wrong.'"
When Tara went to see the doctor, the chest pain distressing her was put down to complications from breastfeeding Flynn, then one year old.
Then, while preparing for a fundraising walk in January 2013, she was forced to stop, unable to continue and completely out of breath.
By the end of the day, says McLaughlin, "she was in an ambulance and her lung had collapsed."
Early testing misdiagnosed her particular lung cancer: a genetic mutation, treatable with
tablets and targeted therapy.
Instead McLaughlin says Tara "was put through chemo, full body blasting … and I reckon her body just took a beating."
A second oncologist would make the right diagnosis, and Tara's tumours were treated to the point she was in remission.
But the cruelty of this disease wasn't done with her yet.
Suffering from head spins she first thought indicated vertigo, proved to be new secondary tumours on her brain.
McLaughlin recalls the episode through tears.
"There was a drug in America she was on the waiting list for and she was all clear to go on that trial, but before that happened, a week before, she got out of bed one day and had a stroke." Once in hospital, "We had less than 24 hours with her."
With a new resilience borne of her sister's battle, McLaughlin soldiered on at work, devoting every free moment she could spare to supporting Tara.
"I remember being in Glasgow and had this ridiculously privileged role [hosting Network 10's coverage of the Commonwealth Games]. I'm sitting on this couch, on air, and at one point Tara called me and said her oncologist had told her, 'We're done now …' Out of options. It wasn't the case, but I remember I was on air for six hours or something and I felt bad because I just faked it. On air, off air, I just had to find a way to get through."
During what was a difficult time personally, McLaughlin also faced other challenges at work.
After moving from Fox Sports to Network 10, she soon found herself making international headlines in January 2016 after West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle made inappropriate comments to her on live TV.
Tara's pluck as she fought cancer had rubbed off on McLaughlin, "but when she died, I didn't feel strong anymore," she says. "I still don't. You keep going, but there's a hole in your heart."
McLaughlin will persevere because she wants to fulfil a promise she made her sister - that she would raise awareness and funds to battle the disease, as well as keeping her memory alive for her sons.
"They're beautiful boys, but obviously they are finding their way and life's confusing. One talks a lot more about her than the other," she says.
"Harry is the spitting image of Tara, which rips your heart out every time you see him. But it's beautiful, too. Her big blue eyes, those big lips … everyone sees it."
And as if heaven sent, McLaughlin believes she also got to see her sister again for her birthday.
"In the lead-up, and this doesn't really happen to me, I had this dream," she tells Stellar. "The family was there, we were at this holiday house. I was looking around and noticed there were fireworks and I was thinking, 'I need to get all the family around to see them.' I opened this door and Tara was there. She had hair, she had colour, she looked spectacular and she didn't look sick. And she just smiled at me and I was touching her face and then I woke up. It felt like she'd come to say, 'I'm OK.'"
* Mel McLaughlin is an ambassador for Lung Foundation Australia's Shine a Light
on Lung Cancer campaign. November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month; visit