Recent graduate battles cancer

Posted on September 17, 2012 in Features, News
By Kirsten Sylvain

Matt Nelson, who graduated from USM in 2010.
Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press
Matt Nelson, who graduated from USM in 2010.

A couple of months after Matt Nelson graduated from USM, doctors found a tumor the size of about a softball in his chest.

He graduated with Bachelor’s degree in marketing and a minor in holistic health in December 2011. His plan was simple: he wanted to enter the workforce as soon as possible.

But his plans were soon interrupted in a way that he never expected. Nelson was a healthy 23-year-old at the time, hiking in the Maine woods and going to the beach with friends.

In February 2012, that changed. In early March, Matt began to lose weight. He had no appetite, and his voice became hoarse.  At first he suspected that he might be experiencing some serious allergies, and his doctors put him on two rounds of antibiotics, allergy medications and an anti-inflammatory steroids, and cough suppressants.  He had night sweats, and his symptoms were persistent and growing stronger. Eight weeks after he started experiencing symptoms, he went to an ENT (ear nose and throat) doctor, and at that visit, the doctor conducted a test in which they found that one side of Nelson’s vocal chords were paralyzed. The doctor warned that it could be something affecting the nerve, but he couldn’t be positive without a CT scan.

A few days later Nelson had that CT scan.  After the test, Nelson recalls having a strange feeling, an intense intuition that something was really wrong.

“I remember feeling that I was being warned the night before by God. I just felt like maybe God was preparing me for the news,” Nelson recalled.

“I asked my ex-girlfriend to pray with me that night, and the next day the doctor’s office called me over the phone at work and asked me to come in.” When he got there, they said: “we don’t know what you’ve been told so far, but you have a tumor in your chest, and it might be cancer.” A few days after, Nelson had a biopsy surgery done and received the news that he did in fact have cancer.

Nelson has stage one lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that affects the white blood cells, lymphocytes, and usually manifests in a tumor made up of lymphoid cells. Doctors warned him that treatment was urgent, as the tumor in his chest, though at an early stage, was growing quickly.

Nelson remained calm though. He took the news with grace and peace, with a feeling that everything would be okay. Of course, Nelson admits, he has his good and bad days.

“Anything can happen. I’m 24 and I never would have expected this to happen, you never expect that your life could be in jeopardy tomorrow. It reminds me of how important it is to live a life that you enjoy and try to be the best person that you can be while helping and loving others.”

When asked what he is looking forward to, Nelson replied that he hopes to return to normalcy soon. Like many battling cancer, Nelson has lost his hair and a lot of his strength. He can’t drive himself around anymore. Because of his weakened immune system, he wears a mask in public to protect him from airborne illness, and the antibiotics that he takes to boost his immunity require him to limit his sunlight exposure.

“There are days when I need to be taken care of, when I’m tired and I stand up and get dizzy.  I feel like unless you go through something like this we tend take certain things for granted.”

And certainly, Nelson isn’t taking anything for granted these days.

“I just find no value in allowing myself to get wrapped up in depression. It’s going to bring other people around me down. I try to be thankful and focus on the good.”

Nelson has taken the lemons that he’s been given, and he has made some delicious lemonade. He smiled over an interview on Skype this week and said that he gives his nurses hugs when he sees them.

“I love helping people, talking to people, because if I can be some type of inspiration, just to see people smile, it really brings me a lot of joy.”

He has a remarkable ability to take a negative situation and view it with a positive outlook; Nelson sees his circumstances as a learning experience.

“I feel like cancer has been almost like a tool for me to really take a deep hard look at myself and really learn from it. I think a lot of people try to be desperate for control in their lives. I was forced to let go of having control, and now I am trying my best to allow God to make something bad into something good.”

Since his diagnosis, his goals and aspirations have changed as has his outlook on life.  He has become an inspiration for many people that he meets.

“Through this experience, I have a lot of time to think. Before all of this I was just going to go into the workforce, but through cancer, my life is on pause.  It’s kind of giving me a fresh start, so to speak.”

Now Nelson is thinking of going back to school and get a Master’s degree in marriage and family counseling.

Nelson is scheduled to receive six rounds of chemo; he just finished his fifth. His last is scheduled for Oct. 5. He now lives with his grandparents in Maryland where he is receiving treatments at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Care Center at Johns Hopkins.

Treatment at a world-class facility is certainly not inexpensive. He explained that because of his condition, he has had to quit his job and all of his savings are gone. His parents have been paying for his treatments with credit cards. Nelson is fortunate in that the Affordable Care Act has allowed him to remain under his parents’ health insurance for another year, but even still, his bills are adding up.

Heather Ciccarelli, American cancer society patient navigator at Maine Medical Cancer Institute, explained how she has seen lack of financial resources adversely affect patients and their families.

“More and more of the share of the cost is being passed on to the patients. They’re experiencing higher and higher co-pays and premiums. In the four years that I’ve been here, there have been fewer resources for patients. –The economy has struggled so have patient assistant programs that were available.”

Ciccarelli explained that she has worked with patients who have been in bankruptcy or in foreclosure.

In a report released by Avalere Health LLC in March of this year, out of 127 patients who received chemotherapy, the average cost that they paid for treatment over a 5 month period (which is roughly how long Nelson is expected to receive treatment) was $40,677. Of course, the price of treatment varies based upon the treatment facility and the seriousness of the condition.

There is a Facebook page connected to a fundraiser for Matt Nelson at www.facebook.com/afundraiserformattnelson.  On it you can donate funds towards Nelson’s treatment via Paypal, and a series of Portland fundraising events planned to happen within the next few weeks will likely also be posted on that page. Check it out for more information.

Nelson has also pledged that he will give any excess funds to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Fund and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.