When college student Matt Shea volunteered on Friday mornings in Dana-Farber's Jimmy Fund Clinic, he enjoyed hiding in the giant boat where children play as they wait their turn for checkups or chemotherapy. "Where's Matt?" the giggling children called out, even though he was ridiculously easy to find: his sneakered feet, size 11, jutted out of the boat from his 6'4" frame.
"I've played more Uno and Candyland than most 22-year-olds," says Matt, who was all too familiar with the clinic where Dana-Farber/Children's Hospital Cancer Center (DF/CHCC) patients receive outpatient treatments — he had been a patient there himself.
"While most college students spend Fridays recovering from Thursday night parties, Matt showed up every week for a year and a half," says clinic activities coordinator Lisa Scherber. "Children always see the good in people, and they knew right away Matt had a big heart. He touches so many of us with his humor, compassion, and wisdom that we call him 'Superman.'"
DF/CHCC has been a second home to Matt and his family since he was diagnosed with sarcoma — a cancer of the bone or connective tissue — at age 16. For him, it's a very special one. "People think this must be a sad place, but it isn't at all. It's warm and welcoming, and the staff and families are of the highest caliber."
A distance runner and basketball player at Walpole High School, Matt began to experience shin splints in his junior year. One day his legs gave out on him, and he came to Boston Children's Hospital to learn a tumor in his spinal column was causing the pain in his legs. He battled cancer for the next year, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy.
Recovering enough strength to resume running the following year, Matt competed in an indoor track meet at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston to resounding applause. "I was slow, but a winner in my own way," he recalls. He graduated from high school on time and enrolled at Tufts University in Medford, believing cancer was behind him.
Matt's other world soon became Tufts, where he enjoyed two cancer-free years doing the college thing, he reports. "At the end of my sophomore year, the cancer popped up again," he says casually. "That period of time was little jittery." Scherber recalls a teary 6-year-old fan asking, "Why does Matt have to get cancer?"
New tumors appeared in his lung and kidney, and there were also cancer cells in his chest cavity — a very serious development. He chose to fight on, having his lung, portions of his chest cavity, and kidney surgically removed, and began chemotherapy again.
Matt's caregivers echo Scherber's view of him as an extraordinary patient. "He is so upbeat and positive, he is an inspiration to us and to other patients," says his nurse practitioner Annette Werger, PNP. "Every time a roadblock appears, he finds a way around it."
Despite the specter of cancer, Matt views his college life as somewhat typical: "I've hardly been a shut-in." He lives in an apartment with a roommate who is a "neat freak," and only close friends knew he was a cancer patient — he wears a baseball cap whether he has hair or not. "I don't like to lay my story on people," he says. "My friends are there for me if I feel like talking or just hanging out." Miraculously, the political science major will graduate in May, in the face of more setbacks than any young person should have to endure.
Having finished treatment in February 2008, Matt is cancer-free again. He says his illness brought him several gifts, including the chance to meet a few of his beloved Boston Red Sox players during one of the field trips to Florida for spring training with other DF/CHCC patients.
More profoundly, he points out, cancer gave him a broader perspective. "For example, studying for finals doesn't seem hard, compared to fighting cancer," he reflects. "Other problems, such as a disagreement with a friend, are minor. And, I always make time for friends and family." Chief among his supporters is his loving, close-knit family: dad Phil, mom Kathy, and sister Meghan, 25.
"My cancer story isn't really about me," Matt comments. "I don't deserve credit for how I've done. I'm a reflection of the good people around me: my family, friends, and caregivers. I couldn't do this without them."
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