Right here. Right now. Our plan is to embrace the moment.
It takes so much away. But if you let it, a cancer diagnosis can also give you an important gift.
Some people call it mindfulness. Others call it living in the present. Matt McCullough, a husband, father and dentist from Ankeny, Iowa, calls it “embracing the moment.”
“It’s our family motto,” says Matt, who was diagnosed with cancer in mid 2014. “It’s about finding joy here and now, even when things aren’t going well.”
Of course, Matt enjoyed his life before he was diagnosed. “But today, it’s just different,” he says. “It’s hard to describe. Let’s just say, I cherish the time I have with my family now more than ever.”
It’s Just a Lump
Like many men his age, Matt, 44, has always taken great pride in his work and providing for his family. As a dentist, he is the primary owner of a busy dental practice that, in 2014, employed 22 people.
Married to wife, Brea, for 18 years, they have three children: Sara, 15, Brady, 12, and Troy, 8. In early winter of 2013, their life was a flurry of activity typical of a growing family. That’s when Matt noticed a small bump on the right side of his head.
“It was rather unusual I guess. But it didn’t hurt. I didn’t hurry off to the doctor about it, even though Brea urged me to,” says Matt. “It had all the qualities of a common lump called a lipoma. When I did visit my doctor about it, he agreed. Judging by its features, it was likely just a slow growing lump of fatty tissue.”
A few months later, the lump started to feel tender, and Matt was having sporadic headaches. He decided to have the lump removed. During that process, the surgeon discovered it was not a lipoma, and the process of removing it would be far more complex than anticipated.
A Devastating Diagnosis
An MRI revealed a large tumor in Matt’s brain, bigger than a baseball and smaller than a softball. It had pushed the brain tissue aside as it grew, potentially compromising Matt’s speech, movement, vision and thinking. The tumor covered about 25 percent of his brain mass.
“It was shocking,” says Matt, shaking his head, “I still cannot comprehend how it didn’t affect my speech or cause loss of motor skills.”
A biopsy revealed the tumor was actually soft tissue sarcoma, a type of cancer that develops from soft tissues, like fat, muscle, or nerves. The tumors can be found in any part of the body, mostly in the arms or legs. The development of this type of tumor in the brain is extremely rare.
My doctors had seen just a few of these types of tumors in their decades of practice,” says Matt. There is no known cure for this type of sarcoma. It is also resistant to chemotherapy.
Despite the devastating news, they had to move forward. Step one was removing the tumor.
“If I survived the surgery, there was a good chance I would suffer nerve or brain damage. It was likely that I would be unable to practice dentistry. We just had no idea what to expect,” adds Matt. “We tried to stay positive, but it was hard given all the things that could potentially go wrong.”
A few weeks later, however, the surgery was an incredible success, as the tumor was removed with clean margins. Soon after, Matt began a grueling, 32-day radiation treament. Also, physical therapy helped restore the use of his dominant left hand, so he could continue practicing dentistry.
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Good news followed a few months later, in the spring of 2015, when scans confirmed no additional tumors or spots.
“Throughout this time, my extended family became closer and stronger. Any grievances we had before now seem petty,” said Matt. “Being this sick makes you realize how much you want these relationships, and it makes it easier to get past any problems.”
What’s more, Matt was eventually able to go back to work. “During my time off, I couldn’t wait to get back in some capacity,” says Matt. “I was going stir crazy. I had never taken time off before and now weeks were growing into months. I missed the camaraderie of my coworkers.”
Things seemed to be moving along like clockwork until the fall of 2015, when test results revealed a tumor on Matt’s liver, and an additional spot on his spine. This resulted in surgery to remove part of the liver, plus radiation, this time on the spine. Matt and Brea spent Thanksgiving in the hospital.
Time marched on as Matt spent six weeks in recovery, then began more weekly chemo treatments in January 2016. Events took another turn for the worse in February, when a tumor caused Matt’s collarbone to snap.
“It might sound strange, but this was the real low moment for me,” says Matt. “And it wasn’t just the persistent pain. You see, I couldn’t move my left arm more than 90 degrees. It might sound petty. But I had a very difficult time accepting that I was unable to throw a ball with my son.”
“Mentally, Matt is a rock,” says his wife, Brea. “He is so strong and positive. But losing that physical part of his being, well it was brutal. Hard on him and hard for me and the kids.”
Making Time Together
By getting through these roadblocks, the “embrace the moment” concept gained speed.
“We decided to exhaust our resources and make more time for Matt and our family to be together,” says Brea. Meanwhile, Matt began three months of experimental chemotherapy treatments. After three months, Matt learned about a metastatic growth and a blood clot in his lung. This led to another round of chemo in April, which now included daily shots and a blood clot thinner.
During that time, we made the best of it. We took a trip to Florida. We went to the Rose Bowl,” says Matt. “And I made a bucket list of all the places I wanted to see with my family, including the Ronald Reagan Library, Alcatraz, Graceland and Pearl Harbor.
While he hasn’t checked any items off the list yet, Matt is doing something even more important. “At home, I am just more in tune with the kids’ activities. I am there more than ever for Brea. I take my daughter to lunch. I watch the boys play baseball. I’m just there.
Seeing the Good
Today, Matt says he sees the good in people more than he ever did before. “I see it in my coworkers, my patients, people who send me get well cards, volunteers who provide countless meals, and people on the street.
In April, friends hosted a fundraiser to help offset costs associated with Matt’s care.
“At that event, we experienced what a lifetime of relationships in a community can do to a soul,” says Matt. “After a week of bad news, it lifted us up to see all of our friends together in one place.”
“It taught us that there may be a few bad things out there right now in our lives, but look at all of the good. There is no comparison and the good prevails!”
Most recently, Matt had surgery to remove the center portion of his clavicle. This fall, he will undergo further chemotherapy.
While Matt and Brea do not know what the future holds, one thing is for sure: “We will deal with it,” says Brea. “What choice do we have? Right here, right now, our plan is to embrace the moment.”
Adds Matt, “We have our ups and downs, and the future is uncertain, yes. But we will deal with troubles as they arise. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a hard time with it. It just means that I want to enjoy the time I have here and now.”
Men, Go to the Doctor
“There’s a lot of advice out there for men, but they don’t necessarily listen to it,” says Matt.
“Take it from me -- I'm one of them!”
“I didn’t want to let pain or other issues slow me down. But I had to. Ignoring symptoms just makes the problem worse. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your wife and family,” says Matt. “Just don’t ignore it.”
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians:
- Nearly one-third of men report not having a primary care physician.
- 55 percent of men hadn’t seen their primary doctor within the last year.
- 29 percent of men admitted to waiting “as long as possible” before seeking medical attention for pain, illness or health concerns.
Men, take charge of your health:
- Find a doctor you know and trust.
- Schedule a routine exam.
- Get the screening and tests recommended for your age group.
- Ask questions. Be informed.
Update: Since this article was first published in 2016, Matt continues his battle with cancer. "At this point, we look at it as a chronic disease that he is living with, and we're adapting to," says Brea. "We manage. We live with it the best we can."
Most recently, Matt had a large tumor removed from his liver. "It knocked us down for awhile," says Brea. "It continues to be hard for him, because he's used to being strong. But this is our new normal."