Matt Featherstone Photo
Who Is Going To Stay With You Through Cancer Matt Featherstone Photo
Who Is Going To Stay With You Through Cancer

Listen, I don’t know about you, but for me, honesty has become such a rare commodity these days because it’s so hard to accomplish – you have to set aside your ego, you have to put your worries aside about how other people see you, but it also gives you this incredible power of clarity.  Honest – that is how I would describe Matt Featherstone, our guest today.  Matt is for real.  Matt doesn’t screw around. He takes his honesty and he turns it into insight, into how you can shift your focus during cancer, into how you can manage your energy.  Who is going to stay with you through cancer? Matt is going to share some fantastic advice for dealing with cancer, including:

  • How some people in your life fall away just when you need them most
  • Why Matt’s little c reframe can help put cancer in its place
  • How the modality of cancer scares people off
  • 3 things that are inherently different about men facing cancer
  • Setting the rules up to deal with cancer as a family
  • The importance of peer support during these tough times
  • Matt’s top lessons learned about dealing with cancer
  • Who is going to stay with you through cancer


Cancer Connect

Full Transcript

Joe:                 Matt, thank you so much for doing this, and I’m really looking forward to this.

Matt:                Yes, very happy to help.  It’s a worthy cause.

Joe:                 Yes, absolutely.  First, I want to ask, how did you react when you first found out that you had cancer?

Matt:                Yes, I remember it distinctly, it’s one of those big life events, isn’t it?  I suppose I was very similar to many blokes.  We’ve got 19 things going on in our heads at once, and I got a call from my GP and I remember coming into the office and actually in the office with my wife, and saying, “Sweetie, I’ve got some bad news, we’d better put aside some time to talk.” I didn’t drop everything.  I think it took me quite some time that evening before I even stopped work and went into the other office and said, “Look, we’ve got a problem that’s got nothing to do with the business, we’ve got a problem here.” I guess the short answer is, I was a bit numb, actually, I wasn’t expecting it.  I think it was, as I say, quite some hours, then, of course, seeing her face really made a very big difference to my evening.  We literally turned the entire office off and just went and sat down and had a cup of coffee and went, “Well, we weren’t expecting that, what are we going to do?” It was a bit of a shock.

Joe:                 Yes, exactly, like you said, I felt shocked, I felt numb, and I felt the whole world stopped and came to a close, like everything slowed down.  The whole sound was muffled.  It was just a really bizarre feeling because it’s unexpected, right.

Matt:                It is, it’s a very unusual experience.  I suppose one of the positive things is, Joe, that since then, I guess like most people, we’ve had other things that have happened out of left field, not expecting them.  Sometimes it’s nothing to do with health but just things in the family.  I must admit, we, as a family unit, now we’re better at taking unexpected bad news and doing something with it than we were before.  There was an upside.

Joe:                 Yes, absolutely.  That’s a positive take on it, Matt.  I think that’s because you’re confronted with it, you’re forced to deal with it.  You have to find a way.

Matt:                Yes, that’s right.  You’re exactly right, Joe.  It’s almost like there’s a moment now that you can’t go back on.  The die is cast, and you need to do something.  You’re right.  It’s a very specific type of life event that you’ve just got to deal with in a sense, yes, you’re right.

Joe:                 Absolutely.  Your family, your friends, you just mentioned your wide, she obviously was in a shock, but how did they react, and did they support you in a way that you wanted to be supported?

Matt:                That’s a great question.  Firstly, I would say that some of my friends didn’t make it through the experience of being a friend with my while I had cancer.  At the time, I think I was a little disappointed, I think, would be the honest way of describing that.  I must admit, now that I’ve come through five years of cancer-free.  Joe, that was a great celebration, I must say, that was a big party.  I now look back on the new group of friends, but at least the refresh group of friends that I have, let’s put it that way.  I must say, the friends that I have now, they have more of an alignment I think with the way that I view the world and cancer.  I think that’s a very good thing.

I think that’s a very positive thing because I still occasionally find myself thinking about cancer and some of the issues that I had and the way I responded and this newer group of friends of mine are very useful, if I could use that word.  They’re very supportive, that’s a better word.  They’re very supportive.  Sometimes I say, “I kind of want to talk about something that happened when I had cancer.” I now think it was a positive experience in terms of my friends.  In terms of my family, yes, my immediate family were very good.  I guess because they’re right there with me.  They’re in the same house as me, and at the time, anyway, our kids have grown up now, but at the time, they were here.  They couldn’t remove themselves from the situation at all.

They responded very well, my wife and my immediate family.  My extended family, you know, I’m talking about parents and brothers and look, that was variable.  Without naming names, but I had some issues there with people that found it very difficult to come to grips with this.  The way they dealt with it was to keep their contact with me to a minimum.  I get why, I do, I understand why.

Joe:                 Yes, why?

Matt:                In summary, I had a type of cancer that is partially hereditary, in the sense that you’re genetically predisposed to it.  That meant that males in my extended family started thinking obviously about themselves, I get that.  I totally get it.  That meant that part of their response was less because they were thinking about themselves.  I totally get that.  If I were in their shoes, I’m sure I would have thought to myself, “I’m going to get tested.  I better make sure this is not going to happen to me.” One of the members of my extended family did find a very high indicator.  I get it, I get why.  I guess I may have had an unrealistic expectation around my extended family and how they would react.  That took a little bit of an adjustment for me.

Joe:                 Yes, so thank you for your honesty, Matt, because it’s such a hard topic to talk about, but I think it’s very necessary because I think people need to hear this stuff.  The more people I talk to, I find this over and over again, that this happens to people.  These patterns come up, time and time again, you know?

Matt:                Yes, you’re right.  Although, we can rationalize it, like I just did, I think, Joe, that it’s fair to say, when it actually happens, it’s a little bit more emotional than the way I just described.  Certainly, I did, I don’t think I acted terribly well in the moment to somebody that wanted to go and find out whether they may have had an indicator rather than asking me about how I was going.  I think I probably overreacted a bit.  I think it’s fairly human to do that, because the fact that we’ve got it.

Joe:                 Yes, sorry.  I think it’s really great that you processed a lot of this negative stuff and moved on.  I really want to go back to your friends for a second.  I think it’s incredibly encouraging that you found what you referred to as a refreshed group of friends.  In terms of friends, because that would be different from your extended family, I want to try to understand what your perspective is because I went through it more recently.  Who is going to stay with you through cancer? To me, still, it’s pretty painful.  I don’t understand why the people that I expected to be there for me, why they pretty much just dropped out completely or just pretty much disappeared.  When I really expected them to be there.  What sort of process did you go through to think about that?  Are there any explanations that you found, yourself?

Matt:                Yes, look, I do, I have two things that helped me rationalize and understand why some of my previous friends didn’t come through the whole journey.  I think the first thing, Joe, is when you get diagnosed with cancer, some people find it extremely hard to properly understand how long the journey is going to be.  They perhaps think it’s like you’re going in to get some surgery done and then a week or two’s time, you’re going to be okay.  Of course, you and I both know that that’s not the case.  The first thing I’d say is that some people can’t understand the length of the journey.

We’re going through a five-year journey and sometimes more.  Since they don’t understand that, they drop away.  They literally go, “I don’t know what to do?  I’ve been there to the hospital, I’ve talked to him, and I don’t really know what to do.  Do I come back and talk about the same thing?” I think that’s kind of one reason.  I think the second reason is that some people just aren’t good with illnesses.  One case, I remember, in my own set of previous friends, they’re not good with illnesses, they think illness is a little bit of a weakness.  Someone’s just giving the cancer illness too much time.  They think, why give something like that so much of your time and effort.

Of course, they don’t realise that’s entirely what cancer is going to do, it’s going to take up just about every moment of your waking life, right?  For quite a while.  They don’t get that.  It’s almost like they think it’s the flu, like, get on with it.  I think that’s probably a male thing, Joe, I’m not sure it’s a female thing.  I’ve got female friends.  I think it was more my male friends who were a little bit wanting to see me come out the other end more quickly and less time talking about cancer than I did.

Joe:                 Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, I think it’s that different modality of cancer.  Even if I take just the nine weeks of chemotherapy that I went through, my entire paradigm had shifted.  I became an entirely different person.  For them, it was just business as usual.

Matt:                Yes, I think you’re right, Joe.  We start changing the way we’re interacting with our illness and they don’t because they don’t understand that.  They’ve observing it, but they don’t really get it.  I think you make a great point there.

Joe:                 Yes, Matt.  What is it that’s different about man facing cancer?  Do we have different needs?  Do we express things differently?

Matt:                I think so.  I’ll give you two reasons for that.  I think the first thing is that generally speaking, we, as men, don’t tend to ask other people for help as much as our female friends do.  What happens, I think, a little bit, is, to be brutally honest, we don’t address things that we should do, we don’t ask for help, so things get a little worse than they need to be.  Again, the example, in my case, I had a bad reaction to one of the general anaesthetics.   I had three operations and I got no word of whether it was a ratio to gas or whatever it was, and I ended up in ICU.  I wasn’t really helping myself terribly much.

I wasn’t being a very nice patient, to be honest.  I wasn’t communicating properly with the nurses and I wasn’t trying to help myself, by asking for help.  That just made, when I look back on it, it was a silly thing to do, it made my stay in ICU a lot longer than it needed to be, and I probably had some ramifications of that.  If I had been a little bit more sensible and asked for help, I probably wouldn’t have had some of the other problems that I had post to the operation.  I think that’s the first thing, we need to ask for your help a bit more than we naturally do.  I think the second thing is the expressing.

I think you ask a very good question there.  I think as men we tend to express things in terms of a logical, if you like, way of expressing something, rather than the emotional way of expressing something.  We tend to say, here’s my problem, what do you guys thing?  Rather than, here’s my problem, this is how I’m feeling about it, what do you guys think?  Because we don’t kind of talk about our feelings as much, we tend to get back a very logical response, “Well, have you tried this?  Have you tried that?  Have you tried that?  Why aren’t you doing this?” Of course, some of those things mightn’t be a terribly good idea, given how we’re feeling at the moment.

I’ll give you a simple example, in my particular case, I was very sick after one of the surgeries I had.  Someone that said, Matt, how are you going today?  I said, “Well, I’d love to go for a cup of coffee, but I can’t, have you got any other suggestions?” That was a bit silly of me, I should have probably said, “I’d love to go for a cup of coffee, but I feel sick.  I’m going to throw up if I have a cup of coffee, do you mind if we go and just have a wander around the garden and talk about something else?” I should have said that, if I had said that, then the person that was there in the room at the time would have gone, “Well, I understand the way you’re feeling, that’s alright, how about we do this?” Yes, I think you made a great point, I think we probably need to explain a little bit more about how we’re feeling, the emotional side of things, and try to ask for more help rather than try to do it ourselves.

Joe:                 Yes, I completely agree with you because as men, we tend to want things to make sense.  When it comes to cancer, a lot of things just simply don’t align.  A lot of them simply don’t make sense.

Matt:                Yes, you’re right, particularly in terms of the medical profession.  I think one of the biggest learnings I had was to spend the time in waiting rooms, actually reading up about procedures and what can be some of the side-effects of the procedures and what some of the frequently asked questions are about the procedures.  That really did help me to then interact with the medical profession in a way that enable them to give me a much better answer.  I think what happens is that they’re so busy that they tend to answer questions in a very short way because they’ve got patients waiting, and all of that sort of thing.

I noticed when I said, “Well, actually, I’ve read this study and it says this, and I’d like to ask you what your view is on that and how I can stop having that problem later on in life.” They would then reset and go, “Okay, this guy actually has some background, I’m going to give him a much better answer.” That was, of course, much better for me.

Joe:                 Absolutely.  It’s better to ask informed questions when you know what’s going on.

Matt:                Exactly.

Joe:                 Also, Matt, I think that also it’s very important for us men to take a step back a little bit, because I feel that quite often we want to be in control of things, we want to be in charge, we want to know exactly what’s going on.  Quite often, that’s not really what happens with cancer, sometimes we have to let things take its course a little bit.

Matt:                You’re right, Joe.  As blokes, we find that pretty hard to do.  We’re wired a bit to try to at least take control, whether we can or not is a different matter but we try to and you’re right, there are a lot of things in that journey in cancer where you can’t take control, it’s going to take as long as it’s going to take, I remember, Joe, saying that to myself a few times, “Matt, there’s nothing you can do to speed this up, let it go, let it go for as long as it’s going to go.  Try to learn as much as you can about this while you’re waiting.  Just try not to do their job for them.” I remember being quite pointed with myself just to stop doing that.

Joe:                 That makes so much sense.  Matt, I know that your daughter was also diagnosed with cancer, that is absolutely the worst thing that I can imagine.  It’s crazy, but also understand that all of these crazy events have brought your family together.  How did that come about?  What is your advice to someone about bringing in your family together on this cancer adventure?

Matt:                Great question, yes.  Our daughter was diagnosed a week after me, so we just had one of those perfect storms that happens sometimes in life.  The that brought us together was, because I was one week ahead of, and it doesn’t sound a lot of time, but you and I both know that in that one week, you’re really getting started.  You’re on the phone to people, you’ve been to medical appointments, you’ve got tests done, you’ve done quite a bit in that first week because you have to.  What happened to us, Joe, was that because I’d had that experience, I had already found quite a few people who had been through the type of cancer I had.

I got them to come and talk to me, and in some cases talk also to my wife, we started to be able to understand how that was going to affect the family, because we could hear their stories.  Some of those stories were great, by the way, so it was about how we’re going to avoid some of the problems that other families had.  Some of them were really good stories about how, for example, one family we heard about had some rules that they were not going to use highly emotive language when they were talking about the cancer.  They were going to take five and if they couldn’t talk about their feelings in a constructive manner in the family, they were literally not going to say anything.

We found those little tips to be extremely useful, because we could start to say, “Well, look, why don’t we do that in our family?  Let’s have that rule.  That sounds like a great rule.  Why don’t we do that?  We’re going to go away this weekend, we’re going to forget about cancer for a weekend.” We did a whole stack of things that we’d learned from other families had been useful, that would work in our case.  That helped a lot to deal with my cancer, but also our daughter’s cancer.  She was obviously an awful lot younger, obviously.  She was 17, so she was quite young.  That brought its own challenges and we really needed to speak to some people in their family who had someone with cancer at that age.  I think really, Joe, that was a very big learning, was to educate ourselves by talking to others who had been there before.

Joe:                 Yes, that’s the biggest thing, isn’t it?  How did you find those other families to talk to and find those rules, some of them, that you could incorporate into your life?

Matt:                Well, the first thing we did, was we went out our extended family.  My family and my wife’s family and we said, “Hey, this is happening to us, you’re going to need to give us a little bit of flexibility in terms of what we’ve committed to do?” Like, we won’t be going to dinner at this date, we’re not doing this birthday party and all sorts of things we had to decommit on because now we really had to focus on this.  Of course, it’s a bit like six degrees of separation.  Some of our extended families came back and said, “Actually, I know somebody, would you like to talk to them?” Of course, we said yes, can you put them in touch.  We also got quite a number of people from my GP and my surgeon and from our daughter’s surgeon.

They sent out, we were quite lucky, quite a number of patients who were willing to talk about their experiences.  They didn’t know us, but they were very kind to take a phone call and we could ask them questions and they’d talk to us about what they did in their families.  Of course, there’s cancer counsel, and they have a number of ways of connecting families in who are either experiencing cancer themselves or caring for someone with cancer.  They’ll put you in touch with these people and you can ask them questions.  We actually found we had a very great number of people we could talk with.  We did a lot of that in that very first week of being diagnosed.

Joe:                 That’s fantastic, Matt.  You really tackled it early.  I love your concept of little C.  Can you talk about what that is and how that’s helped you tackled cancer?

Matt:                Little C, Joe, came about because in a waiting room, one evening, I had an iPad and I started saying, what am I worried about?  I just started writing, what am I worried about?  I just dumped a whole stack of issues and questions and anxieties onto this page in my iPad.  Then I went back, and I looked at that and I went, “My goodness, cancer itself is actually not the biggest worry that I’ve got at the moment.  My biggest worry is what happens if I don’t come out the other end?  What happens if this is it for me?” That was a much bigger issue than dealing with cancer.

Then the second biggest issue, again, more important than cancer, what was going to happen to my family?  How was my potential demise, not to put too fine a point on it, what was going to happen to me?  Have I got my affairs in order?  Then I came up with this idea, that I’m going to call it little C, from the perspective that there are much bigger issues that I need to address at the same time, and I need to get that square around my head, I’m not going to dump that on people.  I’m going to get my own thoughts together on what’s going to happen to me if I die.

I found that by putting it in perspective with those bigger issues, that it became the little C.  Now, that didn’t mean that I didn’t think it wasn’t important.  As I say, it’s very much in parallel, I was giving time to what was going to happen to me if I did die, and they said, “Sorry, we’ve tried everything and you’re not going to make it out the end” , then I knew how I was going to react to that and I had my affairs in order.  In parallel, I knew I was still going as fast as I could to get to all the appointments and get the bookings done on the tests and get myself into hospital and get myself fit and all that sort of thing.  It was going on in parallel, but it did mean that cancer itself took a little bit of a smaller sort of priority over some pretty larger questions.

Joe:                 That’s fantastic because it’s such a positive reframe.  It really puts cancer in its place.

Matt:                That’s right, it is a reframe, I’ve never thought of that.  You’re right, Joe, it is a reframe, yes.

Joe:                 I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of advice to share with the old me who was diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment, I really had no clue about what was going on.  Is there anything that you could have done differently in retrospect?  I know there’s no such thing as hindsight, but if you had that chance, would you have done anything differently to make it easier for yourself?

Matt:                Yes, I would have, for sure.  The first thing is, I wouldn’t have kept working.  At the time, we had a mortgage and kids in school and it was a pretty tough time, but I do remember after one of the operations, I think I might have been out of hospital one or two days.  It was a very short period of time at home resting, then I flew down to Adelaide for a day’s work, for our business.  I was a mess that day.  I think I slept the entire way down in taxis, trains, planes.  I just was slept.  When I got there, I wasn’t on my game and coming back, I did the same thing.  Then I had physical ramifications the next day of just pushing myself too hard.  I think the first thing I’d do is find a way of stopping work for a bit, not permanently, but dropping back to part-time or something or other.

Running your own business, it’s actually a lot harder to do that than it looks, because you’ve got to bring the business in, you’ve got to deliver the business, you’ve got to build the business.  You’re doing it all yourself.  Now, we’ve got staff, but you’ve still got to run the ship.  My silliness was to try to keep doing that rather than just say, “Do you know what guys?  This week, forget about it, I’m not here.  I won’t be able to do a thing.  I’m not picking up the phone, I’m not doing my emails, I’m just doing nothing.  I’ve just got to go and get better.” It would have been better for me to do that the three times that I went to hospital.  That was a mistake.  I shouldn’t have done that.

I think the second thing, Joe, that I’ve learnt is that the ramifications of some of the treatment are not to be underplayed either.  I thought I was reasonably fit and I had come out the end with a smaller number of ramifications on my health than I did.  Therefore, my recuperation was a lot longer than what I thought.  Mentally and physically, I took four years out of the five years in my particular case before I actually started feeling at all well, to be honest.  To be brutally honest, I did not feel well mentally or physically for four years.  That became a real drag, Joe.  It was a drag on me, it was a drag on my family, on the business, because I just wasn’t feeling well.  I think that was a mistake.

I looked back over some of my notes and people were talking, that mental fog, for example.  Joe, you remember this, I’m sure.  That mental fog, that took a long time before that dissipated.  Then I had another procedure and I’d get it back again for a period of months.  I think I was a bit silly in thinking I would be coming out the end of the mental and physical implications of these treatments fairly quickly.  You don’t know until you’ve done it.  I would have been much wiser if I had gone, “I don’t know, I’ll see how I feel, then I’ll plan my way forward.” I didn’t do that, and it was stupid, you know?

Joe:                 Of course, you sometimes feel like you just want to break on through and sometimes that may not be the best way to go.

Matt:                Yes, that’s right, exactly right.  That’s well put, Joe.

Joe:                 Matt, what are the top three things that helped you deal with cancer on a daily basis, physically, mentally, emotionally?  What comes to mind?

Matt:                A great question.  Let’s take all of those three things.  Physically, I was very fit before the first of the three operations I had.  I’m very glad I did that.  In fact, one of the guys who I’m currently talking with through Cancer Connect, as a peer support person, I did make a big point of this, and it was interesting that the person I was speaking with said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’m that fit.  Maybe I do need to spend a lot more time getting fit, I don’t know.” I’ll tell you, I thought I was super fit, and I struggled getting through three operations in a period of 12 months, it just knocked me about.  I think getting fit physically is definitely one of the top three things.

I think mentally, and it may not suit everyone, Joe, but certainly my case, I needed to get real very quickly in my head about what this thing was all about.  I didn’t paper over it, I didn’t say, “It’ll be fine.  I’m sure the medicals, they know what they’re doing.  The hospitals are good, the treatments are proven.” I didn’t say that to myself.  I went, “Okay, I’m going to find a stack of problems in here.  I need to be realistic about this, it’s going to be a difficult process.

I need to get myself mentally ready to wrestle with this process and interact with it and make sure that I drive an outcome out of this that’s good.” I didn’t let it happen to me, I guess that’s the way, Joe, that I’m trying to express.  That I tried to get into the situation and drive it.  I think that helped a lot mentally.  It wasn’t happening to me, as opposed to me managing it.  If that makes sense?

Joe:                 Yes.

Matt:                I think the third area is around financially, yes, that’s a great question.  We had income protection, when I say we, the business and myself, so on the days where I just couldn’t work, I just couldn’t get out of bed and just mentally not there or physically not there, I had income coming in.  What I don’t think I did that well, which I’d probably change, if it ever happened to me, and touch wood it won’t.  That is that I needed to get my head into the space of, okay, I’m going to go backwards financially.  We’re going to owe more money at the end of this than we did.  Okay.

There’s nothing I can do about that.  I can’t be superman and try to work and do this thing at the same time.  I think if I released some of the pressure off me to keep some of the financial trendline going, so that we’re still making our savings target and still putting money towards that and doing those things.  I think if I’d been a little bit more realistic about not trying to do that, and just accepted the financial consequences for a period of time, I think that would have been a lot better.  It did cause some issues that were just unnecessary, in terms of clashes of dates, you know?  I can’t go into hospital that week because I’m going to be in New Zealand, so I’m going to do it the week after.  Stupid things like that.  I’ve been getting my head around, we’re going to go backwards.  I’m not going to be put so much pressure on me, let’s get this thing done at the optimum time.  Let’s not put it off, let’s go.  I think that would have been a better way of going, actually.

Joe:                 Yes, for sure, Matt.  I think one of the things that keeps coming through for me from what you’re saying, and I think that’s true for all of us guys, is that we just put so much pressure on ourselves to be this or that and it just takes us back, really.  It’s not helpful.

Matt:                You’re right.  It causes issues physically, emotionally, and financially that are unnecessary.  You’re right, you made a great point.

Joe:                 Yes, Matt.  Can you please talk about what Cancer Connect is?  I know you’re doing some fantastic work around that.  How does it work and why did you get involved?

Matt:                How does it work?  It’s one-on-one peer support, but it has a very important aspect of it.  That is that only first names are used, and we don’t share our phone numbers or anything about where we live.  Now, why that’s important is it enables two strangers to just talk about the facts, without worrying about anything.  I’m just Matt.  They don’t know who I am, where I live, what my phone number is, and I can just say – because they’re not going to ever work out who I am.  This is my experience, boots and all, this is what happened to me, and take from this experience whatever you can in terms of your own situation.  It enables a great deal of honesty.

I think that’s why it works.  To answer the second part of your question, Joe, why I got involved, it’s because it’s there.  It’s there.  I came across it, as you know me, because it was one of the organizations that I turned to in those early days of educating ourselves.  I thought, well, if they’ve got an opportunity there and I can help someone with my experience, then I’ll do it because it’s there.

Joe:                 Absolutely, and it’s one of those things that I only found out about it after the fact.  I found a brochure somewhere and I went like, “Why didn’t I know about this when I was going through treatment?”

Matt:                Yes, you know, in Australia, with only one exception, which is Darwin at the moment, and I’m sure the territory up there is working hard to address is, there are a lot of resources available in each of our capital cities.  We’re actually very blessed that way.  Most of the population has got a huge amount of state and federal help that they can get for very little costs, if not no cost at all.

Joe:                 Yes, you’re spot on, Matt.  I think there’s absolutely nothing like hearing about cancer experience from someone who’s been there, from someone who went exactly through what you’re going through, who’s been through this journey.  I know I spent a lot of time on forums online and I think that’s a good way to go, because it really gives you perspective of people who’ve been down that road before, right?

Matt:                Yes, exactly right.

Joe:                 Matt, I know that one thing that comes up for me and I think everyone going through cancer is the fear of it coming back.  Did that happen to you?  If so, what would you recommend to someone in terms of dealing with it in a better way?

Matt:                This is a really good question.  If you’d asked me that question a month ago, I would have given you a different answer than the one I’m going to give you tonight.  Actually, in the last 24 hours, I’m starting to have some symptoms that I had five years ago.  Now, I know they can’t be related to the same thing because I had that taken out of me.  I know that that’s not in my body anymore, that particular cancer, but because they’re the same symptoms, my emotional reaction is quite hard to manage.

It’s almost like my heart at the moment is overriding my head and I’ve already been to see my GP today and had a bit of a conversation about, let’s see what we can do here, just to allay some fears that are starting to come back.  It’s a big issue and I’ve noticed talking with others, that you don’t really ever get over this, you’re kind of on the watch, if I can call it that, forever.  You’re looking at the same symptoms, you’re thinking about what could be happening, you can’t turn that channel off.  It really comes down to, Joe, what can I do to manage this little emotional channel that’s going off all the time?  I certainly have found it very good to take up a particular type of sport.

Now, everybody’s got their preferences, but what I’m getting at is, you need to choose a sport that is a very mental sport as well as a physical sport because you’ve got to stop the thinking for a little bit.  You’ve got to give your mind a little bit of a break.  Now, you can do that in different ways, some people tell me they can do that with meditation.  They can actually turn their heads off and not have this emotional reaction when they’re meditating, great.  For some reason, I can’t do that, my brain just keeps going, I can’t stop it.  I find that this particular sport that I took up five years ago, which is surfing, tends to be very good for us blokes, because you can’t surf and think about something else at the same time.

You literally can’t.  It’s a bit like soccer, I’ve heard other blokes say, that’s interesting, it’s the same with soccer, you can’t play soccer and think about something else because you’re going to miss the ball or whatever.  I think my short answer to you is, you’re right, Joe, it’s a big issue, it’s a lot bigger than it looks and that we need to find this bloke something to do to turn off that emotional channel for a little bit and give ourselves a mental break from it.

Joe:                 Absolutely.  Do you find that something like doing things like Cancer Connect, where you’re doing something that is almost in a way bigger than yourself, do you find that that helps you, as well?

Matt:                That’s a great question.  Personally, I find it very rewarding to talk with someone who is full of questions and sometimes, talking it out can be a really good thing, as we often don’t do that, as you and I have been talking about already.  I find it very rewarding to just listen and go, yes, that sounds right, that sounds par for the course.  Just that thing where somebody feels like they’re being listened to and I’m not providing advice because that’s not what we do at Cancer Connect.  I also find a nice to be able to say to someone, if I think you’re in danger to yourself at the moment, I’m going to strongly recommend you go and get some help, because it’s not something to be trivialized.

I find that quite useful and just on occasion last week, not through Cancer Counsel, but another forum, I actually did take action on behalf of someone, I said, look, I just don’t think you’re coping and I think you need to talk to someone, I’m going to get someone to ring you.  You can make your decision on whether you’re going to want to take that call or not.  I found that was just a really rewarding thing to be able to do.

Joe:                 Good on you, Matt.  That’s such a fantastic thing to do.  I know that you have your own business with your wife and you mentioned that it was a challenge to keep it going.  What was it like and how did it all work out?  What did you learn along the way?

Matt:                Great question.  The first thing I noticed was not to tell people that I had it.  I noticed that the dynamic you get between yourself and a client when you divulge that you’re going through cancer is not what you expect.  I get it.  I totally get it from their perspective.  They need a service provided to them, they’ve used us before, they’ve got a very good outcome and they want the same outcome again.  They’re got a short period of time and there you are saying, “Look, as a matter of fact, I can’t do that today because I’m going into hospital.” Why are you going into hospital?  “Well, as a matter of fact, I’ve got cancer.” Then there’s this complete silence, Joe.

I learnt not to talk about it with clients, which is a bit unusual for me, I do like being open and transparent.  I just go and that’s not a good idea, I just simply said I wasn’t available.  The second thing was, we did need to get a lot more help in the business because I just wasn’t able to do what I normally did.  That cost us money and other bits and pieces.  It was a brutal reality.  We’re just not going to get through this unless we get some more help in here, that might mean that we don’t make as much profit, but so be it.  At least we’ll continue out the other end.  I think the third thing is, that my wife and I put in place rules about what we’re not going to talk about over dinner.

One of those things was actually me saying, “I don’t want to talk about cancer over dinner” and my wife would say, “I don’t want to talk about business over dinner.” We were not having very much to talk about at some points.  What I’m getting at is, she wanted to talk about cancer and I wanted to talk about the business.  We had a bit of a tense time there at the start.  Well, how are we going to do this?  I understand you want to talk about cancer.

When are we going to do that?  Vice versa with me wanting to talk about the business.  We found ways of doing that with morning walks and getting coffees and things like that.  Look, it’s a difficult thing, there are may more positives than negatives about working with your wife in the business, I think.  That’s when business is business as usual.  When you’re also dealing with cancer and you’ve got a business, yes, it puts a lot of extra stress on things.

Joe:                 Yes, I can imagine.  I know, Matt, you do a lot of work around coaching and to enable people to get to where they want to be in terms of their success.  Has cancer changed your perspective on that?  Is your approach now different?

Matt:                That’s a great question.  The answer is yes, but for an unusual reason.  As a professional workplace coach, we are, and I am, driven very much to get and outcome on behalf of our client, we’re there to support them in order to achieve their goals and the way they want them and, in the time,-frame they want.  Of course, sometimes, Joe, you know, in the process of supporting them, they didn’t do what they said they were going to do, or they didn’t do it in the time-frame, or sometimes they even changed their goals radically.  I think what my experience of coming through cancer has allowed me to do is go, alright, that’s alright, that’s okay, we’re human and sometimes what we set out to do is not what we’re ultimately going to do, or we’re not going to do it that particular way, or we’re not going to do it in that particular time-frame.

That is okay.  I’ve noticed that that’s a little counter-intuitive and some of my coachees are doing, “Well, that’s very refreshing, that’s really great.” Other times, my coachees have said, “Well, that’s weird.  Aren’t you supposed to continue keeping me up and making me accountable for my actions and so forth.” I was saying, well, actually, if you want to change your direction, and you want to change your timeframe, you want to change your goal, you want to change what you’re doing, that’s perfectly okay for me, my job, as your coach, is to support you.

It’s actually helped me a lot to reflect back on those times through cancer and the missteps that I made and the delays and all that sort of stuff, because now I’m able to apply it and it seems to actually help my coachees quite a bit.

Joe:                 Yes, that’s fantastic.  That’s really a completely different perspective.

Matt:                Yes, it has, indeed it has.

Joe:                 Matt, I know for me, cancer has really forced me to completely change my priority.  Probably forced is not the right word.  I chose to have completely different priorities in life, well, not completely different, but the way I look at life is definitely now different.  Did you go through a similar experience?

Matt:                I did.  I did.  I’m glad you’re asking that question because I want to say that before cancer, for me, the concept of work/life balance is just something you said in order to get a tick on the box, to say that you were aware of it.  I remember my GP every year going, how is it going with your work/life balance?  Yes, I’m going really well, this is what I’m doing.  I was paying lip-service to that, Joe, I must say.  Absolute lip-service to it.  I wasn’t taking it serious at all.  As soon as I got sick and had to deal with some of the implications of the illness, I started to get serious real fast about things like physical health and spending proper time each week maintaining my fitness.

Not just when I could fit it in, I was actually fitting my work-life around making sure I was physically fit.  I really turned it around.  The same thing with my mental health.  On those days when I had that fog, and I remember once, Joe, and maybe you had a similar experience, I was in a meeting with a client and we were adding up numbers to do with my proposal, or our proposal and looking for ways to get agreement on price, you know?  I was adding two numbers together going, “What?  That doesn’t even add up.” I just totally lost the ability to add two numbers together.  That’s a mental health problem.

That’s a real-life issue.  I do the same around that now, I actually never deprioritize the time that I need to ensure that my mental health is optimized.  I’ve got a little phrase that one of my coachees gave me the other day, which I thought was really very instructive.  She called it: De-speeding.  In other words, take the speed and the pace out of what I’m doing, so that I maintain optimal mental and physical health.  I think that’s a really beautiful little word.  It encapsulates what I’ve been doing.  I’ve bene de-speeding.  I actually don’t try to do as much as I used to do.  That’s had some pretty wide-ranging implications, you know?  I’ve decided there are certain types of clients that I don’t want to serve.

I don’t want to have as my clients and I’ve said no and turned away business.  That’s actually been a fantastic thing for my physical and mental health, because I’m under less stress and I have more time to maintain these optimal levels that I’m talking about.  The same thing with business partnerships.  I’ve decided there are certain types of partnerships that were just destructive.  There wasn’t a benefit in them.  We just stopped those partnerships, we just terminated them.  That was a very good thing to do.  To answer your question, prioritizing physical and mental health has now become an actual thing, rather than we just talking about it.

Joe:                 Yes.  You almost eliminate things by nature.

Matt:                Yes, exactly, right, Joe.

Joe:                 Matt, recently, I heard Brendan Beshad, who’s my favourite expert on self-improvement, I heard him talk about the perfect day and that most people don’t really know what it looks like for them.  They never really experience it.  You know what?  I’ve had so many perfect days since cancer because I started appreciating everything that I took for granted.  Every day.  I was actually conscious about how I was designing my day.  What’s your take on that?

Matt:                I think you’re right.  In fact, just listening to you then, I can think of a couple of examples today where I just paused and said a silent, “How grateful am I?” To myself, about what’s happening.  I’m much more aware of the good things that are happening, and I want to spend a little bit of time during my day actually celebrating that and going, “That was great.  That was really good.  As opposed to, oh no, look at my to-do list that’s three pages’ long.  I think you make a great point.  I certainly caught myself doing that.

Joe:                 Matt, if you had a minute with someone who recently got diagnosed with cancer, what would you tell them?

Matt:                I think I’d tell them two things, first of all, go and educate yourself as best as you possibly can and spend as much time as you can understanding what treatment options you’ve got, what the implications of them are, how long it’s going to take to recuperate and ask as many questions as you possibly can with the medical people you’re interacting with, to ensure that you know what you’re about to do, and that you can actually manage your own situation from a logical perspective.  The second thing I’d say is to do the same thing with your emotions.  Work out what types of emotions you are likely to feel by talking to people who have been through it, is it fear?  Fear of what?

Is it going to be the fear of the unknown?  I try to really be brutal about confronting the emotions that you’re feeling.  Here’s my thing and if you think you need help, you should go and get help to manage your own emotions.  The system, or the process, if you like, you’re going to go through, medically, is not going to help you at all in terms of self-management.  You’re going to have to look out for yourself and be ready to tell people how you feel and most important, if you just don’t think you’re doing it, you’re not managing yourself very well, then to stop and go, “Okay, I need some help, someone give me a phone number, I’m making a phone call right now.

I’m going to talk to someone about getting some help right away.  Someone gives me a phone number.” You’re going to have to do that because the process you’re going to go through is not really designed to help you manage yourself.  Does that make sense?

Joe:                 Absolutely.  That’s great advice, Matt.  I really want to thank you for your time and for your honesty, because that’s not easy, and for being able to articulate this incredible complexity that comes with cancer.  Thank you so much, Matt.  I really appreciate it.

Matt:                It’s been a great pleasure and, Joe, keep up the good work, you’re going a really good job just bringing this stuff to people’s consciousness.  Well done, you keep doing that.

Joe:      Thanks, Matt.  I will.