Life & Style

Matt and Rhali share their Beanie for Brain Cancer story

It was June 2016 that Matt Stonham was playing for his beloved Maitland Football Club at Broadmeadow Stadium, only four days out from his 30th birthday it should have been just like any other football game.

Standing in his favoured goal keeper position it was mid way through the game when Matt unexpectedly collapsed on the field, and with partner Rhali Dobson watching on from the side line, it was Rhali who noticed Matt fall to the ground. From that moment on the couples lives would be forever changed. 

beanie for brain cancer
Matt Stonham and Rhali Dobson

Meeting with Matt and Rhali at their home in East Maitland, the couple are incredibly welcoming and relaxed and show no signs of the turbulence life has thrown their way, and whilst they face challenging times ahead, some of the happiest moments of their lives are just around the corner, as they explained. 

Thank you both for meeting with me. Firstly Matt I wanted to ask how you’re feeling at the moment and where are you at with your treatment? 

I am in recovery at the moment and everything's pretty good except for a bit of muscle pain, which I'm slowly getting past with rehab. I am trying different things to get my strength back and lose the fatigue.

I had a good result with my last scan, which was in April and that was my first three month check up. For the next few years I'll need to get check ups every three months.

You were a healthy and fit 30 year old when you were first diagnosed with brain cancer, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to receive that information, can you explain what those initial moments were like? 

First time around it's hard, you obviously have the shock and there are tears everywhere. It’s hard because you don't know where you’re heading towards. You don't have any results at that stage. It's just a scan and the scan says there's a lesion, there's something not right, and they kinda leave you with that information and can't give you anything more until they get in there and do a biopsy. So yeah it's hard because you don't quite know what’s happening. 

Your MRI results showed you had a brain tumour, did you undergo treatment quite quickly? 

The team of doctors I had were awesome and they got on top of things pretty quickly. It was only three weeks after my diagnosis and I was having surgery, which I was awake for. The doctor told me everything that was happening during the operation, he walked me through the whole process of why needles were going in and what was going to happen. I had to talk to the nurses while the doctor was fiddling around and doing his thing, which was crazy.

I followed this up with 6 months of chemotherapy to try and hit it hard, however the cancer returned in January this year as a grade 3 tumour and I underwent another operation and more chemo. But my last scan came back with a good result and the doctors are pretty positive about the way I am going. 

In 2022 Matt was asked by the Mark Hughes Foundation to become a “Beanieficiary”, a new campaign launched by the organisation to put a face to the name of those benefiting from the more than 800,000 beanies sold since its launch in 2014.

How did your involvement with the Mark Hughes Foundation (MHF) Beanieficiary come about?

Rhali: We had always supported the MHF and before Matt was re-diagnosed I’d reached out to them about doing the Big Three trek, which I did in June 2021. Following that we've been working with the MHF as much as we can to try and get the awareness out there, and talk about how prominent brain cancer is and how things haven't really developed or the prognosis hasn’t changed for over 30 year. 

They then asked Matt if he would like to become a Beanieficiary which he was more than happy to do. 

How has the organisation helped you personally? 

It's probably different for everyone, but for me, because I am working I can't always access my phone, so they have been great at organising my appointments and are happy to reach out to doctors and chat to them on my behalf. They'll then call me and let me know if anything is urgent or if the doctors have any concerns about my results. They're only ever a text away, and that support has been amazing.

The MHF organises a number of events to raise money, along with selling the beanies, one of them being the Big Three Trek which you did last year, how did you find that experience? 

Rhali: I had just retired from professional football [formerly of the Melbourne City Football Club] so I thought I would handle it ok, but I was so unprepared, especially  for the swelling.

It’s a big walk, 150km from the NRL Headquarters in Sydney to McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle, and the body isn't built for walking that far. My feet towards the end of the trek had swollen so much so they were rubbing on my shoes which caused really bad blisters. The hardest part was the sand, it's softer and your shoes fill up with sand.

Matt: Honestly, there was no difference between the top of calves and her ankles. [laughs]

Despite the pain, did you enjoy the experience? 

It was fantastic, in terms of the achievement. I met a lot of people in the process who either had a partner, friend or family member who had been affected or they lost a loved one to brain cancer. 

Mark walked the first day with the group and I had a really good conversation with him, I personally had been so focused on Matt and helping him in the lead up to the trek I hadn't really thought about anything else, and they say day two is about facing your demons and your own healing. I took a lot from the whole experience. 

Will you be doing the Big Three Trek again this year? 

There has been so much interest in this year’s trek our organisers were finding it hard to say no to some people, only 50 can participate. So myself and my best friend offered up our positions this year so someone else can take some awesome healing from it. Instead we're one of the support crew, so we'll be driving the mini bus and and walking with the people that are struggling. 

We start walking on the 28th of June, it’s only five km’s on the first day and anyone can participate. It’s a lot of fun, we’re joined by lots of sports stars, medical professionals, family and friends. It starts from the NRL headquarters and finishes at the Opera House where we have lunch and then the actual trek begins the next morning. The start of the trek also coincides with the Beanie for Brain Cancer NRL round. 

What is the money raised by the MHF predominately going towards? 

A lot of what we're doing with Beanies for Brain Cancer goes towards setting up in the Hunter region what will be the number one brain cancer research and treatment centre, not just in Australia but in the world. Medicine is constantly changing and improving, like with Matt's surgery and being awake during it, that wasn't possible 10 to 15 years ago. 

So it's amazing to think that we're going to have one of the best treatment centres available just down the road from us.

You have some very exciting times ahead, Matt's proposal was probably one of the most televised proposals ever, do you have a date for the big day?

Rhali: Yes we’re getting married on December 1st 2022, and then we’re taking off on a 2 month honeymoon to Europe, which we’re both so excited about. We’re getting married at Chapel Ridge on the Central Coast. The owners reached out to us following our Australian story episode, they have both been affected by cancer and knew what we were going through and they said come and have a look at the venue, which is absolutely stunning.

It’s going to be a big day, I'm one of five girls, Matt has one brother, but we’ve both got a lot of friends from soccer. Some are coming from overseas, others will be zooming into the ceremony, but we always knew we would have a big wedding. 

Rhali you retired from professional football when Matt’s cancer returned, are you playing locally at all? 

Rhali: I'm playing in the National Women's Premier League in Newcastle. I wasn't sure if I could fit training and playing in this year, but I can't keep away from the game. It's my socialisation. It's my outlet. It's like it's exercise without thinking.

And Matt you were coaching, is that still the case? 

No not anymore, I think I over did it last year coaching. I had surgery and then I was back on the training ground within two weeks. I look back and realise that was too much. Maybe it was a good distraction but this year I've definitely enjoyed being a spectator. I can sit there and have a couple of beers.

Rhali: Then I get to drive him home [laughs].

Beanie for Brain Cancer week takes place from 27th June to 2 July and everyone is invited to hold their own beanie fundraiser at home, school or work. It also coincides with the NRL Beanie for Brain Cancer round where every home NRL round 16 game beanies will be sold to raise much needed funds for brain cancer research.

Beanies can also be purchased for $25 online through the Mark Hughes Foundation, at Lowes and participating IGA stores.”