Posted on December 20 2017
As we approach the end of 2017, it seems fitting to include our interview with one of the most inspirational of women. Kiko Matthews has survived a very rare and life threatening condition - Cushing's disease - not once but twice - in 2009 and as recently as August 2017. Despite the tumours and suffering from the serious condition twice, the experience and recovery has given Kiko a renewed purpose to live the rest of her life with purpose and meaning. As a result, she hopes to inspire and empower more women to live fearlessly "in whatever way honours their skills and passions, unlocking their personal confidence and independence for happier lives."
To that end, Kiko is now taking on another challenge. To help raise £100,000 for King's College new Critical Care Unit, she is attempting to become the fastest female to row the Atlantic... solo... and unsupported. Here's her remarkable story, and how you can help:
Newnham: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Matthews: I am very lucky and had a very stable and secure upbringing. I was born in Hereford and encouraged to be independent... I have middle child syndrome (parental attention seeking) which I'm sure started from day dot! I have also always tried to do things differently, better or bigger (sometimes it's been worse!). Friends would say I was a bit unconventional and eccentric, strong-willed and motivated. They always say things like "We always wonder what's next with you" and "There’s never a dull moment with you."
Newnham: And what about your career - can you tell us more about that?
Matthews: It's been varied and not sure I'd consider it a career quite yet! I started as a Science Secondary school teacher, and did this for seven years. I left that because I wanted to pursue something different (I am not a fan of the structure of timetables and set holidays or even the system itself). I left to set up a charity and also my own business - both based around stand up paddleboarding. I am passionate about the environment, adventure and the outdoors so incorporate these as much as possible into my everyday life and work.
Newnham: You were first diagnosed with Cushing’s disease back in 2009. Can you tell us what led to the diagnosis and what effect it had on your life?
Matthews: Symptoms-wise, I had pretty much most of the ones listed in any medical journal - mental symptoms were insomnia, memory loss, mania and psychosis - general cognitive issues - then physically I had end-stage diabetes, bloating in the face and tummy, muscle wasting (I could barely get up the stairs unaided), osteoporosis, bruising, skin thinning and a lump of fat on the back of my neck, facial hair and spots on face, chest and back. Think that's it! I wasn't too phased by it. I'm from a medical background and I think the psychosis was in my favour. It had appeared so quickly (seemingly) that I didn't realise how serious it was. And I was definitely fulfilling my third child syndrome when I overcame it and they removed the tumour. I just knew I wanted to live my life and be happy; find something that was worth living for. It taught me that worrying is a waste of time. I still do worry but I can control it and talk myself out of it now!
Newnham: Operation a success, you get on with your life with renewed purpose but whilst training, you experience symptoms which lead to another diagnosis. Can you tell us more about the adventure you set yourself and why?
Matthews: Last September I decided to solo row the Atlantic in a World Record attempt to be the fastest woman. Why not?! And to raise money for Kings College Hospital. But midway through training I discovered, eight years later, that the tumour and disease had returned. Mentally, I was a bit like, “Whatever….you’re not going to get in the way, I have more important things to be doing than getting ill.” Physiologically, it made me very strong, in the outset - full of energy and no need for lots of sleep. However, towards the time of the operation at the beginning of August, I was definitely being very manic and my brain was definitely not functioning as it should. After the operation (cycled to my op in the morning, and out of hospital three days later unlike the first time which took a month), your body has a bit of a chemical crash - having been functioning on quite elevated hormone levels, suddenly they dropped to near 0, so it takes time for your body to adapt.
Obviously I was more focused on training and the campaign to raise the money for the project, but it did effect my physically. My growth hormone which grows muscle was also low so training wasn't really doing much! Four months on though, I’m back and functioning as I should (I think!). Its amazing that the tumour became evident at the time that it did. I’m thankful that, just in time, it became obvious enough that the tumour had returned, and needed taking out and so did not effect the challenge.
Newnham: You have incredible strength – both physically and mentally. What drives you and what training is involved for this adventure – both physical and mental?
Matthews: Physically, I was born strong. I always had a good bit of chunk on me so that bit has been relatively easy - as long as I don't do exercise that I don't like - running and rowing machine (unfortunate, I know!). Mentally, I have realised that I function best when being challenged. I love learning and I want to make a difference to other people. I feel like I have got to where I want in life (emotionally) and if I can work every day with that in mind, trying to help others get there too, then I must get on and keep going. Life is amazing, people are amazing and human life is amazing and I want to show people that no matter what, you can do it. Knowing (or at least hoping) that I am and will make a difference is what keeps me motivated.
Newnham: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in your life?
Matthews: Worrying is a waste of energy. Being honest about who you are and what you believe is the lowest energy state you can put your body in - you hear people say "I love hanging out with you because I can just be me" - why aren't people just ‘me’ all the time? Why would anyone hangout with anyone who didn't allow them to be themselves? There's a whole lot of energy you've just gained which can be put to use somewhere else - it takes time to train yourself to do it - mental training - but it's great when you crack it!
Newnham: What can you tell us about resilience and how one can shape it, if at all?
Matthews: That's a long answer and will be in my book I'm writing. You're not born with resilience. Your parents help you develop it as a youngster, and then as you get older, that's your job. Reflect on your experiences and your behaviour. What can you take from every experience and are you maximising your energy (ref previous answer about worrying and honesty)? The more resources and energy you have, the more resilient/brave etc you become.
Newnham: And what are you most proud of and why?
Matthews: Not chasing the money and still having an amazing life. I'm proud that I have worked at being happy and have worked through being eternally single and probably being one of the happiest people I know!
Newnham: Once you have achieved this feat, what do you hope for the future?
Matthews: What will it mean to me? I want to make a difference to other peoples lives. I genuinely want people to make a change in their lives and become happier. If everyone could have what I have, the world would be one mega happy place. I want to mentor some less advantaged women to cross the Atlantic, and put them through what I have experienced these past months and hopefully show them that anything can be achieved.
An important part of why I am doing this challenge is also the 100TogetHER initiative. As well as being a collective fundraising strategy, it’s actually much more than this. It's a collaboration of women and girls from all walks of life, showing what can be achieved if we build a supportive network and work togetHER. The vision for 100TogetHER after the Atlantic row is completed, is that it will give other women opportunities to challenge themselves whilst being supported by other women in the community, to help achieve their goals.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice would you offer a younger Kiko?
Matthews: Nothing. Everything I have done (wrong and right) has helped me learn and end up where I am today. I've made mistakes but nothing so big that it has had a negative implication. There have been good times, bad times, tough times and easy times, and they have all helped me grow so I probably wouldn't offer a younger me any advice.
Top photo by Nyla Simmons.
Thank you to Angela Sharp for coordinating the interview.