PORTLAND, Maine — As much as he prefers to focus on other things — his faith in God, appreciating the beauty in everyday life — Matthew Nelson finds himself at the confluence of two of the country’s hot button issues.
Nelson graduated from the University of Southern Maine in December 2011 with $27,000 in student loan debt. Then, just a few weeks after marching with his classmates in May to pick up his diploma — and before he could secure health care benefits that often come with a full-time job — doctors found a softball-sized tumor in his chest.
“It’s definitely a big battle,” Nelson, 24, said Tuesday of the debates over health care and student loans. “It’s something I try not to focus on too much. I’m not trying to be ignorant, but I’ve got to get healthy. That’s got to be my main goal. If I sit around and stress out about health care and finances, that takes energy away from getting better. But on the other hand, I do think about it.”
He’s watching interest on his student loans build up as he defers payments for six months to a year, and he’s watching medical bills topping $10,000 apiece arrive in the mail. And he must live through what doctors describe as some of the most aggressive and damaging chemotherapy treatments available in order to survive lymphoma.
“Luckily, because of ObamaCare, I was able to stay on my father’s insurance for a year after graduation,” Nelson said. “A few weeks ago, I got a bill of $10,000 from [the hospital]. With his insurance, they covered a lot of it. … If it wasn’t for ObamaCare, I wouldn’t have insurance right now.
“In a lot of ways, I can understand where Republicans are coming from,” he continues. “They don’t want to give out free money to people. They don’t want money to get wasted. But in my situation, I’m somebody who needed this. I need to be on my parents’ insurance.”
After graduating in December, Nelson moved to Connecticut with his then-girlfriend. He was within striking distance of New York City — and, presumably, the job opportunities that exist in a metropolis of that size. Nelson, a Gorham High School graduate, described it as a hopeful time.
He was aware of his student loan debt, but it wasn’t something that consumed him. He could handle it in due time.
“I wasn’t too worried about it,” he recalled. “But it was definitely in the back of my head that I needed to get a job and I needed to get a good job.”
Nelson took part-time jobs to help make ends meet and landed some interviews in his chosen field — marketing — but he didn’t land a full-time position until a few weeks before he would return to Maine to take part in USM’s May graduation ceremony.
Along the way, his health began deteriorating. It was slow and deceptive, he said.
“I had a minor sickness for about two months, and it just wouldn’t go away,” he said. “Some days were worse than others. My voice was getting kind of raspy, and I lost my appetite. I was losing weight and I wasn’t trying to lose weight.”
Doctors put him on antibiotics and cough suppressants.
“Nothing was working,” Nelson recalled.
Finally, a specialist focusing on the changes in his voice determined that his left vocal cord was paralyzed. The search to figure out why led to a life-changing discovery.
The doctor told Nelson the nerve tied to the vocal cord starts in the base of the skull and runs down through his chest and back up again. They scheduled a CAT scan to see if there was a problem along that path.
“The next day after the CAT scan they called me in to get the results,” said Nelson, who had researched his symptoms online and knew lymphoma was a possibility. “I thought that was strange. They wouldn’t tell me what they [had] found out over the phone.”
A tumor about the size of a softball was in the left side of his chest pinching the nerve associated with his vocal cord. A follow-up biopsy confirmed the cancer diagnosis, and Nelson’s doctors told him he needed to begin with an aggressive treatment regimen as soon as possible.
They also told him he wouldn’t be able to work while undergoing those treatments — at least in the early going — because of the toll the chemicals would take on his body. So a few weeks after marching in his graduation ceremony and less than a month into his new full-time job at an area manufacturing company — and before his health care benefits kicked in — Nelson was forced to call his boss and step down.
“When I got back into my car, I started to cry a little bit,” Nelson recalled. “When I was alone, it hit me. But I knew I had to call my dad, my mom and my boss right away.
“[Cancer is] the last thing you think of when you’re thinking about life after graduation,” he continued. “I was a young, healthy, 24-year-old guy.”
Nelson moved to Maryland, where he could stay with family members and take advantage of the oncologists at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where doctors told him in June he stood a 50 to 60 percent chance of surviving the rare Hodgkins lymphoma they had found in his body.
Without a job, he burned through his less than $2,000 in savings, and outside of help from family, he’s now living off of donations made through a fundraiser effort launched by friends in Greater Portland. In addition to a collection organized by a friend at the Portland nightclub Oasis, donations can be made online through the Paypal account associated with the email address M.Nelson4jc@Gmail.com.
On Friday, he was scheduled to undergo his fifth out of six rounds of chemotherapy, with rounds about three weeks apart to allow his body time to recuperate between treatments.
After the sixth round, he’ll undergo more tests to see whether the tumor has shrunk in size.
“The worst case, which I definitely hope doesn’t happen, is that they say the chemo hasn’t done anything,” Nelson said.
But Nelson is optimistic the treatment is working. Doctors told him they had caught it before the cancer had spread to other areas of his body, and Nelson said he has seen other signs the mass may not be as large as when they started with the chemotherapy.
“My family has definitely told me they think my voice has gotten stronger,” he said. “For me, that’s a hopeful sign that [the tumor is] getting smaller. That it’s not pinching on the nerve as much anymore.”
So for now, Nelson is trying not to focus too much on the political storylines — about student loan debt or health care reform — winding through his life.
“I just try to take every day as it comes, have faith in God and see the beauty in the world,” he said. “We’re not guaranteed tomorrow.”
And if he wants to save his energy for fighting to reach tomorrow, Nelson said he’ll have to pass on thinking about the debt waiting for him when he gets there.
“If I wasn’t on insurance, and I was getting those $10,000 bills, I’d be freaking out more,” he said. “I was 24. I wasn’t overweight. I didn’t smoke. I was a pretty healthy kid overall. It’s just something you don’t expect. I can definitely appreciate that I was able to get health insurance through my father. Things could definitely be worse.”