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April 29, 2013

Allen Matthews: Cancer Survivor of 26 Years

April is National Cancer Control Month. According to President Obama, "This month, we rededicate ourselves to securing better outcomes, reducing new cases, and advancing cancer research."  Read the President's full statement here.

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CancerButtonSAGE constituent Allen Matthews, 70, has been living with lung cancer for an astonishing 26 years. He attends the weekly Men’s Cancer Support Group hosted by SAGE in partnership with Cancer Care where he continues to inspire others with his story of survival and strength.

Cancer came in to Allen’s life literally with a bang. In 1987, Allen was hit by a car crossing one of Manhattan’s busy thoroughfares. Badly injured, he was rushed to the emergency room where doctors x-rayed him to determine the extent of his injuries. Allen describes the car accident as both a blessing and a curse because, though badly injured, this was the moment that doctors first discovered that he had a large tumor growing on his lung.

After many tests, the doctors diagnosed Allen with non-small cell lung cancer. The news came as a devastating blow.  Allen was a healthy man in early middle age with no symptoms whatsoever, so his reaction was total shock and disbelief. As soon as he was strong enough, the doctors scheduled major surgery to open him up and remove the lower left lobe of his lung. Luckily, this first surgery went well and the doctors decided that no follow-up treatments were required.

For the next 16 years Allen continued to live his life, pursuing a successful career – first in theater and then in public health. The cancer stayed in remission and his only treatment during this time was periodic x-rays and scans. One thing Allen has always maintained is his basically happy and positive outlook on life, though it has been sorely challenged.  It was during this period that Allen lost his partner to HIV/AIDS and, like many in the LGBT community; he met this tragedy with the help of his circle of friends, his “family of choice.”

In 2003, Allen was being treated for cataracts and the doctor ordered a chest x-ray—an unusual decision that became another moment that saved his life. The x-ray showed another tumor on his lungs, a sign that the cancer had returned. He need major surgery again, and this time, a full course of chemotherapy. Allen had to take a 10-month leave of absence from work to completely devote himself to his recovery.

Realizing it was going to be too much for him to go alone, Allen decided get as much help as possible from his family of choice. He called up the troops—his first step was to ask 20 friends over for brunch.  Along with the eggs benedict and bagels, Allen handed each guest a folder containing an individualized request for help. One friend, for instance, was asked to care for his dog. Everyone was, of course, willing and happy to do what they could.

Coming up against something as powerful as cancer can leave both the patient and his or her friends feeling powerless and afraid. Allen’s folders with assignments were, in a way, a great gift because he had given each of his friends something concrete they could do. His friends continued to provide what support they could over the next several years, as he had additional cancer treatments.

Allen has been cancer free for three years now and is feeling “99% fine.” He retired seven years ago and, ironically, has outlived many of those friends who once received a folder. At age 70, Allen, like many LGBT elders, is confronting his older years with a thinning social network. And so, he was happy to begin attending the Men’s Cancer Support Group at SAGE, conducted in partnership with Cancer Care.

Allen knows, as a long-term survivor, he is able to give hope to many of the men in the group who have been recently diagnosed. The support group provides community and, for Allen, a way to do a service for others. Allen knows that community is the key to struggling with long-term illness—the secret to his success has been having a positive outlook and not going it alone.

The Men’s Cancer Support Group meets every Tuesday at 4:15 pm, and is led by Bill Goeren, LCWS, Director of Clinical Services at Cancer Care, and a social worker from SAGE.  The group provides support in a safe and caring LGBT environment. For more information on meeting locations, visit the SAGE Calendar.

Ed. note: The title of this blog post has been changed to correct inaccurate information.

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