Devoted husband Phil Matheson remembers the exact moment he fell madly in love with wife Iona. He attended her father’s funeral in 1984, and Iona, who went to the same high school as Phil, paid tribute to her dad with an emotional and poignant eulogy.
“She was confident, she was strong. I was really impressed. I wanted to get to know her, and that’s how our relationship started,” Phil recalls.
Tragically, Phil (48) was heartbroken when, after 26 years of marriage and two children, he would be called upon to say a eulogy at Iona’s funeral, after the loving mother lost her two-and-a-half-year battle with breast cancer
last month, aged just 48.
“Speaking at your wife’s funeral is not something you want to do. But after 28 wonderful years together, I had to do it and pay tribute to an amazing woman.”
Phil is one of the millions of people around the world, impacted by the terrible effects of breast cancer. The Auckland mushroom grower appears in a book released this month, called She's Got Breast Cancer, which follows 18 men whose loved ones are battling or have died from the illness. Phil says he got involved with the book to help other men who might be suffering in silence.
Life for Phil and his two children, Ivanna (15) and Lachlan (14), changed forever in 2010, when his scientist wife started complaining about back pain.
“Doctor’s couldn’t find out what was wrong. They initially thought it was pneumonia. We grow mushrooms, so she put it down to the type of work she was doing.”
After undergoing many tests, the couple discovered the devastating truth in 2011, a day after their 24th wedding anniversary.
“Our doctor said that he had some bad news and it started with C,” he says.
Iona was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and was treated immediately with an intensive short course of radiation.
“The cancer was extremely aggressive and fast moving. It had jumped all over the place. There was no cure,” says Phil, who had once sailed the world with his wife and family.
“Iona was normally healthy, lively and generous. This was the last thing we expected.”
Despite such a devastating prognosis, the couple were determined to fight the illness. Iona even documented her journey in an intimate and honest online blog.
“Right from the start, we didn’t want to dwell on it. There was nothing she could do, except delay the process. She refused to have any conversations about wills or funerals. Right from day one, our relationship was sacrosanct. I was there to support her. She felt it was a heavy burden to put on anyone, but if the roles were reversed and it was me that was sick, then I knew she would do the same.”
Phil also knew he had to be strong for his wife, especially as she was becoming physically and emotionally depleted.
“The cruel thing about breast cancer is that it destroys a woman’s confidence and she feels vulnerable. ‘Is he going to love me any more? I’m not the same as I was.’ And that’s when, as a male, you have to say, ‘I’m in this, no matter what.’”
Phil and his children worked together to ensure Iona had the best quality of life possible.
“You have to keep things going. I was philosophical. I thought that if anyone was going to beat cancer, it was her. And she gave it a jolly good go. I was there to support her through the process. The children were also right there by their mum. If Mum needed something, they got it for her.”
After a long struggle, Iona finally passed away last month. The legacy she has left for her husband and children will be everlasting.
“She was an awesome woman, who had a smile that would melt a room. She had a very sharp intellect. She hated being called stubborn, but to me that was a positive word. It was about her attitude,” Phil remembers.
He empathises with any man affected by breast cancer, and encourages them to be vigilant about the wellbeing of their loved ones.
“If you notice any physical changes in your partner, then react straight away,” he warns.
Meanwhile, Phil says that he and his children are staying strong after Iona’s recent death.
“The three of us are really tight as a family. We will move forward with a lot of optimism and loving memories.“
Photos: David White