Matthew-Paul started life as a happy “outback boy”, living 320km inland from Port Hedland in Western Australia, surrounded by red dirt. He was educated at home via the School of the Air until the age of 12, as the drive from his front gate to his home took three-and-a-half hours. “If you put a city kid in my homestead, they wouldn’t survive,” he recalls fondly.
At 13 years old, he went to a boarding school in Perth, which was a five to six–hour flight from home. As an indication of how different a world he now inhabited, Matthew-Paul recalls that he saw grass and a main street for the very first time. He adapted to city life, as he was surrounded by kids for the first time, and became a keen sportsperson and a healthy, active young man. After school, he stayed in Perth to further his education and began studying microbiology at university.
In the middle of a university semester, Matthew-Paul collapsed on a sports field – and his life completely changed. He hadn’t been feeling too well, but the diagnosis of stomach cancer he received was the last thing he expected. He says it took him a while to accept his diagnosis, and he struggled for a long time with the question of “Why me?”. He faced this nightmare at just 23 years of age.
Matthew-Paul endured nine months of chemotherapy. He recalls going “to the wars and back”, and that the cancer diagnosis and treatment were the “hardest time for me”. It was the 1980s, a time when treatments were comparatively unsophisticated.
He had difficulty adjusting to the treatments. He was “up and down like a yo-yo” for the first six months, and lost a huge amount of weight. Luckily, his university allowed him to take time off, but otherwise, Matthew-Paul found there was a lack of support available, and he felt isolated.
“Chemotherapy was rough. In the early days of having cancer, no one really explained the side effects. Doctors couldn’t explain why you lose your hair or why you lose your teeth,” Matthew- Paul remembers.
He began suffering from depression as a result of the cancer and treatment. Unfortunately, awareness surrounding mental health was particularly poor, and he did not receive appropriate help.
Fortunately, Matthew-Paul has now been cancer free for over 30 years. He finished his studies and began working as a forensic specialist for the Australian Federal Police. In this role, he worked across the country, as well as in Istanbul, Kuwait and London.
In 1991, he was posted in Albury for a case. Upon spending time with the “fantastic community” there, Matthew-Paul was inspired to retire to Albury in 2004. Despite having no family in Albury, he has been embraced by the community and has hundreds of “mothers and fathers [who] keep an eye” on him. He believes he “couldn’t ask for anything better” than living in Albury.
In retirement, Matthew-Paul is busier than ever, between helping homeless people, being the verger of St Matthew’s Church, and driving patients to Albury’s cancer centre. He says he has been shaped this way by his own difficult cancer experience, and those of his 37 friends who have also been directly affected by cancer. In 2007, he worked with his community to raise cancer awareness among young people by organising a Relay For Life team for Cancer Council NSW. That first year, there were 35 St Matthew’s Angels in the team; since they have participated every year and grown to 150-strong.
“The young ones are our future. They have to continue on our work,” believes Matthew-Paul.
Matthew-Paul is a passionate supporter of others going through cancer and an advocate for research. “Research is very important. I had to go through cancer the old school way. Research makes it easier for people,” he believes.
Matthew-Paul celebrates the advances in treatment and support services made since his own cancer experience, but knows more improvement is needed. “We need research to prevent cancer, and to help and make it easier for those who get cancer … to let people live longer. Hopefully, people in the future won’t have to go through the hell we did”.
Due to his belief in the importance of research, Matthew-Paul has chosen to leave a generous gift in his will of 80% of his estate to Cancer Council NSW. He sees supporting Cancer Council as supporting the community and being “a good cause and something I care for.” As he says, “If you haven’t had cancer, someone in your life has or will”.