Survivor Since: 2015
Missouri Cancer Care Team:
Chemotherapy Care Team:
Treatment: Chemotherapy Treatment
A Survivor’s Story
A retired environmental engineer and business owner, Greg Mattli says that, as he’s gotten older, he’s often wondered what he would do if he got a call with devastating news — a cancer diagnosis. How would he react? What would he do at that moment?
It was mid-October of 2015. Greg was out for a walk with Ginny, his wife of 43 years, in their quiet Columbia neighborhood when his phone rang. In the shade of the trees on their street, he listened to the doctor on the other end tell him that the biopsy on the suspicious-looking tissue in his nose had come back positive. He had cancer.
The home in which Greg and Ginny had raised their three children stood a short distance away. Where their kids had once played, grandkids now ran in the yard when they came to visit. The couple was preparing for a trip to Costa Rica. Life was supposed to be opening up in retirement, and cancer wasn’t supposed to be in the picture.
Life quickly becomes foreign with a cancer diagnosis, as a new, unknown world of possibilities opens up. But Greg says he didn’t have a particularly strong reaction to the news.
“I’ve been lucky my whole life,” he says. “Things have worked out well before, so I felt they would work out well again.”
In the past, when significant issues rose in his business, Greg says he worried excessively, but those experiences led him to a valuable lesson: Never expect the worst.
“If you expect the worst, it might as well happen,” he says.
With a call to his personal physician, Dr. Lyndell Scoles, for an advice, Greg took the first steps of action.
“He told me that he knew the best oncology physicians in Columbia, that they were as good as any in the country and that he would immediately make an appointment with Dr. Ramamdoss with Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA),” Greg says.
Six months earlier, Greg had started having difficulty breathing through his nose, but he wasn’t overly worried. A visit to an ear, nose and throat specialist resulted in a diagnosis of a deviated septum. With no need for urgency, Greg waited six months, enjoying the summer with Ginny, before preparing for surgery.
He says that he was a little dubious about the pronouncement that his problem was a deviated septum.
“I told the doc to take a good look — and make sure that is what it was,” he recalls about the day of his scheduled surgery.
Greg’s hunch was right, and the doctor found suspicious-looking tissue in Greg’s nose, not a deviated septum.
Within two days, Greg and Ginny met with Dr. Ramadoss at MCA, who told them that Greg had Stage 1A Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer but treatable. The treatment plan included three chemotherapy sessions at three-week intervals and 18 radiation sessions.
“I have a happy life,” Greg says about his outlook on the treatment. “A wonderful wife, great kids. I was going to do what it to took.”
While Greg set his mind with determination about what he needed to do, Ginny had a different reaction. Initially she had been stunned by the call Greg had received with the diagnosis, but that reaction turned to fear.
“He was in chemo by Friday, one week after diagnosis,” Ginny says. “I was a wreck, nervous. I would wake up in the night to listen to him breathing.”
Walking into MCA for his first chemo session, Greg was anxious about what was about to happen to him. MCA staff had told him in advance everything they would do and why, and what he might expect, but he had never been in an infusion room before.
His son Paul, living in Kansas City, insisted on being there for the first treatment. Greg entered the infusion room with Ginny and his son by his side and scanned the room to see others — from teenagers to middle-age— receiving treatment.
“They were courageous people who had worse cancer,” Ginny says, revealing the perspective that became clear.
Greg quickly and fully realized that he was in a place where others were there to take care of him, both mentally and physically. He describes the MCA staff as extremely welcoming, compassionate and competent.
“The staff and fellow patients alleviated my anxiety. It was phenomenal,” he says. “They knew how to handle my concerns, and they were matter of fact, calming and easy to talk to.”
He needed three chemo treatments, but others were on a maintenance schedule, receiving treatment on an on-going schedule to fight the disease. He felt guilty that he was Stage 1, while others were Stage 4.
“They were concerned about me,” he says about how the patients welcomed him. “They put me at ease and let me know what was going to happen.”
He sat with a group of four or five others. Greg recalls how a couple of regulars particularly connected with him. Upbeat and helpful, Sherman Brown and Bob Richardson talked to him and kept his mind in a good place.
“We talked about the situation (infusion room) a little, but mostly had a general, casual conversation,” Greg says. “Everyone had accepted where they were and what they were going to do.”
The experience with fellow patients in the infusion room had a profound effect on him.
“Despite their own problems, they did everything they could to make me feel welcome, comfortable and ‘normal,’” Greg says. “They were nothing short of inspirational. After that, I had no fear of infusion and felt a growing sense of optimism about my situation.”
Greg completed his three rounds of chemo with minimal side effects. His daughter Cori would call from her home in Seattle and keep him company during the treatment. His other daughter Gina would put his grandkids on FaceTime to bolster his spirit.
“My wife was a rock throughout this process,” he says. “She and our children and our families provided all the moral support necessary to help me do what I needed to do. They were fantastic.”
Looking back, Greg feels overwhelmed with emotion — something that takes him a little aback.
“I haven’t been emotional until this process,” Greg says of reflecting on his experience. “I don’t know what it is, but part of it is the random acts of kindness.”
“We had a lot of them,” Ginny adds simply, with gratitude.
“I’m kind of a private person,” says Greg. “I didn’t think I needed a lot of help but I decided early on that I would accept all help and well wishes. It was good for me and for them.”
While the chemo treatments went well, radiation was tougher, focused on the cancerous cells in the nose, an area difficult to radiate.
“I was claustrophobic and already had trouble breathing,” Greg says. “I didn’t want to do it, but there wasn’t an alternative.”
He took each 15-minute session one at a time, coached through them by the MCA staff and encouraged by the confidence that Dr. Ramadoss had expressed about the potential results of the treatment.
“The techs were great in how they handled everything,” he says. “(The treatment) never got easier, but it got more acceptable.”
While Greg went through treatment, Ginny says she was there for whatever he needed.
“She did the hard work, the heavy lifting,” Greg says. “She worried. She took care of the fundamentals, getting business done, what we needed to do.”
“I just hung around to see what I could do,” she says.
To keep anxiety at bay as much as possible, she kept herself busy — going to the gym, playing tennis and taking walks — and found emotional support from family and friends.
“You have to have someone on your mind that makes you happy,” she says. “You start to wonder — Should we move? Should we downsize? Should we look ahead? But everything falls into place.”
Ginny says you have to take things day by day when someone you love is facing cancer treatment.
“Greg took control from day 1,” she says. “He shaved his head so it would be easier for the grandkids to see (instead of gradual hair loss). He took his pills and vitamins, and I nagged him along the way.”
“Does that seem right to you?” she asks Greg about her recollection.
“Yeah, you nagged.” Greg answers good-naturedly.
Today, Greg is cancer-free.
“I never thought I would be so happy to hear ‘There’s nothing interesting here,’” Ginny says about their follow-up visits with Dr. Ramadoss.
They cancelled their trip to Costa Rica in 2015 so Greg could focus on treatment, but the couple has three trips planned for this year — a river cruise in Italy and France, a camping trip to Wyoming and a Cardinals baseball road trip with friends. They are also looking forward to a new grandchild, due to arrive in October.
Greg thinks back to the friends he made in the infusion room and wonders how he will react if he gets a call again — a second diagnosis. “I would feel even more confident, not about survival necessarily, but that I could handle the process,” he says.
“I only see acts of courage,” he says about the people he encountered at MCA.