Family

Game of Thrones actor Joe Naufahu’s family struggle

On his mother's fight with breast cancer, the proud star says “she’s the toughest person I’ve met. Tougher than the guys I play rugby with or anyone I train.”

By Leena Tailor

Whether it's hitting the red carpet in Hollywood with his fellow Game of Thrones stars, picnicking in New York's Central Park, looking after his children or running his Auckland gym, there's one person frequently by Joe Naufahu's side – his mum Agnes.

And these mother-and-son moments are all the more special after the 68-year-old fought for her life in a terrifying battle with breast cancer.

"I was having to come to terms with losing Mum, but I never wanted to think about it because I'm her baby – even now, she still does everything for me!" says the 39-year-old actor and personal trainer, who played Dothraki warlord Khal Moro in Game of Thrones.

"The hardest part was seeing her deteriorating – the hair loss, watching her becoming gaunt, the visual signs of cancer and chemo eating away at her ... Even though she never showed her pain, you can't hide it when your hair falls out and you lose weight."

Joe with *Game of Thrones* co-star Emilia Clarke
Joe with Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke

Having always been in good health, cancer never crossed Agnes' mind before a 2011 medical check-up, when she was told there was a lump in her right breast. After learning it was malignant, she refrained from telling her five kids.

"I said to my husband, 'You're my support – leave the kids out of this. They're busy and will worry.'"

However, Agnes finally told Joe the dreaded news as surgery to remove the lump neared. He recalls, "I felt fear. I was scared how sick my mum was and just wanted to take care of her."

Nine months of gruelling chemotherapy followed, with Agnes often left violently ill and hospitalised.

"Losing my hair was awful," she remembers.

"My husband William walked into the bathroom with clippers, saying, 'We have to because there are patches all over.' I screamed. But the hardest moments were thinking about what would happen to my kids if anything happened to me.

"No matter what, I've always fought for them and stood up for them. And my grandchildren haven't even grown up. It became scary to go to sleep in case I didn't wake up, so I would just read."

Although she constantly questioned why this was happening to her, Agnes put on a brave face and impressed doctors with her positivity.

With his mum at the Hollywood premiere.
With his mum at the Hollywood premiere.

"She refused to lie down and die," says Joe, a father to Eva, 11, and Freddy, eight. "Mum never shows her pain. She's the toughest person I've met. Tougher than the guys I play rugby with or anyone I train."

During her low moments, it was Joe who brightened Agnes' days. She tells, "Our eldest son [actor Rene Naufahu] would come too, but he's a bit weak and would cry at my bed. Joe's always been my baby, but he's the tough one.

"His little boy Freddy would rub my head, saying, 'Nana, it feels nice!' He understood everything I went through. My grandchildren always asked, 'Nana, you're going to get better, eh?' and I said, 'Of course.'"

True to her word, Agnes' treatment was successful and a year later, she received the final all-clear, immediately returning to help out at her son's Ludus Magnus gym, where clients call her "The A Team".

It's here where Joe is launching his "Movement for Life" programmes, one of which will allow breast cancer sufferers to attend a free introductory course at the gym, with a portion of the subsequent course fees going to the New Zealand Breast Foundation.

"We wanted to create something where they'd have a programme that's in line with their treatments, is engaging and gives them another reason to carry on," he explains. "It's exciting because it's meaningful and stimulated by things that have happened to me and my family."

Agnes is also urging women to get check-ups, saying that self-examination felt taboo to her. She admits, "When the doctor found the lump, she asked, 'You don't test yourself?' I said, 'We're never taught to do that or
touch there.'

"There's an understanding with Polynesian women that breast cancer is evil, so they're ashamed to tell people they have it. Or it can be too late once they seek help. I always say, 'If something doesn't feel right in your body, there's something not right.' Get it fixed – it can be a long, scary process, but it must be done."

Grateful to have his mum back in good health, Joe's now preparing for the return of his Maori TV series School of Training, the release of his movie Ni'ihau and exploring further acting opportunities in the US – and Agnes couldn't be prouder.

"I've done things a lot of mothers have never done," she reflects. "I've been on a red carpet in Hollywood. I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd do that."

Smiling, Joe insists, "It won't be the last, Mum!"

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