“Being an Imerman Angel’s Mentor Angel has allowed me to walk up to people who I know are fighting cancer and share what the program can do for them. I tell them: don’t be stubborn like me – you need support and what better to have someone who walked in your shoes.”
– Kevin Mathy, Cancer Survivor and Mentor Angel
We interviewed Kevan in honor of our 10th year providing 1-on-1 cancer support. He candidly shares his cancer journey with us and the rest of our community.
Tell us a few details about your background, personality and life story…so far!
My name is Kevan Mathy.
I am the oldest of six (4 boys 2 girls) I was born at Great Lakes Naval Hospital. I grew up in Glenview and Northbrook, Illinois. I work as a Behavior Support Specialist at Timber Ridge a therapeutic K-8 day school; I’ve been there for 18 years. Additionally, I have been mentor for the Kenneth Young Center in Elk Grove, Illinois, for 11 years.
I was a youth and high school football coach for 33 years. Being the oldest of six, I was destined to fall into that line of work seeing as I was helping at home a lot with my siblings.
My wife Christine and I will be married 25 years this July. We have two sons, Michael 22 and Robert 19.
Share some details about your specific diagnosis – type of cancer, stage, date of diagnosis, age, family history, how the diagnosis came about.
I was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma on April 7, 2011, one day before my 53rd birthday.
It was pre-cancer on the left base of my tongue and stage 4 on my neck/lymph nodes, the lump on the left side of my neck was half the size of a golf ball. My personal doctor sent me to an Ears Nose and Throat specialist (ENT) and I went through a series of tests over a three to four week period. Being tested for that long I had a strong feeling it was cancer. There is no real history in my family, my dad died at 61 from lung cancer.
Describe the emotions after you were told “you have cancer”?
Dr. Mark Agulnik at Northwestern University Hospital told me, “Well the bad news is you have cancer. The good news is we see a lot of this type of cancer and it’s totally curable.”
My wife Christine started to cry and said, “What a lousy birthday present.” I looked at her in a calm and confident voice and said, “I think it’s a great birthday present because all I heard was TOTALLY CURABLE!”
I was in control and was doing a lot of thinking. I remember how much clarity I had – my heart did not pound – no anxiety at all. I believe this comes from all those years of dealing with crisis situations at school and as a football coach being in control when adversity strikes; the team feeds off of your reaction during adverse situations.
Share a few details on your treatment journey – regimen, beginning and end date, any recurrences.
My cocktail consisted of 35 radiation and 5 chemo treatments. I began treatment on April 25, 2011, with radiation Monday through Friday. When I was being fitted for my mask the guys in radiology overheard me saying how I wished the department opened before 7:00 AM because I wanted to be first in so I could get to work on time every day. One day at work, about a week or so before my first radiation treatment I received a call from Anthony (a member of my treatment center’s staff) saying, “Mr. Mathy we will be very happy to meet you at 6:00 in the morning to do your treatments because we know you don’t want to not miss or be late for work at the school.”
Are you kidding me? Who goes above and beyond these days? Northwestern Hospital does – that’s who! Was I in good hands? You bet I was!
(Coincidentally, my mother’s name is Margaret – my radiology nurse and chemo nurse’s name. My oncologist assistant is named Sue, my sister-in-law’s name. My surgeon’s assistant is named Katie, my niece’s name. My speech therapist is Megan, is my sisters name. The assistant who comforted me when I needed to lay still while my mask dried Erin, is my sister’s name. It was a promising start.)
How did you respond to treatment, physically and mentally?
Chemo was every other week. When I began treatment, I weighed 235 pounds; when I completed treatment I was 161 pounds. The mucositis was the worst part of the entire treatment. It’s a very painful inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract. That’s the medical definition, here’s mine. It was like having the worst sinus infection only in your mouth 24/7 and to top it off the taste of your own skin being burned was terrible to say the least. The mucositis flowed constantly which made eating nearly impossible. I slept very little due to the constant flow and if I laid down it ran everywhere. I spent two months trying to sleep sitting upright.
Who/what supported you during your cancer journey? Today?
My family and I had tremendous support. My wife is a saint. She organized a driving schedule for radiation. She put up with my frustration and anger. She prayed for me constantly and loved me no matter how I lashed out. I could never love her or thank her enough.
My friends and family all stepped up to drive me to appointments. My brother, Shaun, and my sister, Megan, organized a fundraiser for my family. Family from Wisconsin drove in for the event. Friends gave up their Saturday to be there. Roger and the Warbands (surf band extraordinaire) played at no charge. Lynn Foltz our school nurse and Cindy Kindler our admin collected donations from the faculty at school – can’t say thanks enough. The coaching staff at John Hersey High School where I was coaching football gave to the fundraiser. The players were wonderful.
Post treatment I needed to keep covered from the sun so I wore a hat and long sleeve tee shirts. One day in July, I was sitting down taking a break during practice and the next thing I know the boys I couch are standing by me blocking the sun.
One evening, about 6 weeks in treatment, I couldn’t eat at all. Every time I tried to swallow it was like swallowing razor blades, and everything taste like burnt flesh. My wife sat next to me and held my hand and prayed, “God, please take away the pain and give Kevan back his taste so he can eat and survive this.” The next morning when I woke up I felt like I wanted to eat. I still had a lot of mucositis and it hurt like hell to swallow but something felt different. I ate breakfast sausage and a small serving of hash browns. I could taste. It hurt, but it was a fair trade. Prayer answered.
How did you get involved with Imerman Angels?
Dr. Agulnik recommended Imerman Angels during treatment (I never called) and after I was cancer free. Being a coach I think he thought this was good for me psychologically. Good medicine Dr. Agulnik. Thanks.
How has being a Mentor Angel/Volunteer with Imerman Angels impacted your life?
I mentored a high school coach who lived about 10 minutes from me. He had the same go-get-‘em attitude I did during treatment, but still had a lot of questions. It felt good to give him information and share my experience. Being an Imerman Angel’s Mentor Angel has allowed me to walk up to people who I know are fighting cancer and share what the program can do for them. I tell them, “Don’t be stubborn like me – you need support and what better to have someone who walked in your shoes. I feel this is why I survived cancer was to be able to “coach” patients and share Imerman Angels’ mission.
How would you describe Imerman Angels to someone that has never heard about us before?
When I meet someone who is going through treatment or is a survivor I say, “Do you know about Imerman Angels?” I explain, “We are a cancer support organization: cancer survivors who mentor cancer patients.” I tell them (founder) Jonny’s story and how he came up with the idea. I explain how it works and how to get involved or ask for a mentor.
If you could dispense a piece of advice to the person that you were before you were diagnosed, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, you do not have all the answers and it’s ok to accept assistance. (We learned that as a family.)
Now that you have moved from active treatment, what keeps you going, motivated? Who or what inspires you?
Since going through treatment, I lost a friend Donna Buonamici. She hired me at Kenneth Young Center. Through our work there we became friends. The day I was declared cancer free she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was doing Susan B Komen walks from their inception – a sad irony. Donna died July 21, 2013.
Jerry Cooper was my sister’s father-in-law and had the same cancer I had. Jerry directed me to Northwestern Hospital and Doctors Agulnik, Mittel (radiologist) and Dutra (surgeon). He was my cancer mentor. Jerry lost his fight August 21 2014, almost one year to the day Donna passed.
I do this for them and everyone who does not make it, whether I know them or not.
What advice (in 10 words or fewer) would you share with someone that has just been diagnosed with cancer?
Don’t back down; cancer is a bully. Fight back every day.
Please click below if you are a current fighter or caregiver seeking support or would like to become a Mentor Angel to someone who is facing cancer today.