Tovaris Matthews

Your Health | 2 months ago

Tovaris’ Journey: Restored Hope After a Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis

No one is ever prepared to hear the news that they have cancer. The recovery journey can be challenging and draining for patients – both mentally and physically. But with patient-centered cancer care from Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute, recovery is possible. Hear a firsthand experience from one patient and how he navigated his journey with colorectal cancer.

Tovaris Matthews says he’ll never forget the three words he heard the morning of September 9th, 2020, that changed his life forever – “we found cancer.”

As someone living with ulcerative colitis (UC), Tovaris had undergone a colonoscopy the week prior with his gastrointestinal (GI) doctor due to a bad flare up. He was anticipating news that he would need to do an intensive treatment for his UC, but never thought he would hear those three words instead. As Tovaris tried to process the news he had been told, his GI doctor let him know he had already contacted an oncologist and surgeon and that they would be in touch shortly.

Coping with a cancer diagnosis

According to Tovaris, the news of his diagnosis was stunning. He remembers waking his wife up with tears in his eyes to tell her. “She immediately grabbed and hugged me and we both just sat in silence – not sure what to say to each other. Later that day, my wife and I broke the news to my 3 sons. That was extremely tough because I couldn't assure them that things would be okay.”

Tovaris says he is normally the person people call when they want encouragement or advice. “I am a person of strong faith and have helped friends through devastating seasons in their lives. And yet, on September 9th, I felt numb, helpless, and absolutely convinced that my life was over. September 9th was the day my hope shattered.”

Finding compassionate care at LCI

Tovaris was quickly connected with a care team at Levine Cancer Institute – a team that was determined to restore that hope and provide an innovative treatment plan to guide Tovaris to healing. Under the care of Dr. Mohamed Salem, gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Levine Cancer Institute and Dr. Bradley Davis, colorectal surgeon at Atrium Health, they began treatment.

Dr. Salem and Dr. Davis guided Tovaris through several stages of treatment, including surgery to remove his colon. In November of 2020, he began six months of chemotherapy using two different forms (IV infusion and oral). “Dr. Salem and Dr. Davis were incredibly supportive during this time and helped answer my questions,” says Tovaris. “They even thought of questions that they would want to know if they were in my shoes and offered those answers to me. They were extremely encouraging to me and my wife.”

Building a support system

Tovaris noted that cancer has a way of making a person feel isolated and lonely. “The danger here is that it can create a smokescreen that blinds us from seeing our support system and the comfort that we are not alone.”

Throughout his healing journey, Tovaris credits much of his strength and success to his support system – his family and care team at LCI. “My wife was my rock during this time. She helped me fight each day and even fought for me on the days that I didn't have the strength.”

In addition to his doctors, Tovaris found an ally in Petra Sprik, an LCI Chaplain. “My Christian faith is something that is extremely important to me and Petra encouraged me using my Faith in so many ways,” he says. “She would come visit me during my infusions and we would have the best conversations that would leave me inspired and assured that God is with me. God used these people to piece together my broken hope and give me optimism for the future.”

The many other multidisciplinary care teams and patient advocacy resources provided at LCI also played a major part in supporting Tovaris’ journey, such as nutritional services and ostomy-wound care nurses, to help assure him that he was never alone and always had a team to support him in any way possible.

Fighting cancer during a pandemic

Battling cancer can be overwhelming at any time – but going through treatments during a global pandemic only adds to the stress patients face. This was the reality for Tovaris, who recalls feeling very lonely walking into the building for treatments. Although he couldn’t have visitors, Tovaris shared that LCI went out of their way to surprise their patients with kindness.

“From the guy at the front desk who was always in a good mood that made you feel at ease, to the oncology nurses who gave gift baskets to patients and always made me feel comfortable, the team was encouraging me every step of the way.”

Healing and a new mindset

It has been just under a year since Tovaris rung the end of treatment bell and celebrated clean scans – deeming him cancer free. “I still have days where I get overwhelmed from my past experience. There are times I wonder when cancer will make an appearance in my life again,” he says. “However, one of the gifts that this whole process has given me is the gift of slowing down and cherishing the moment.”

“When I find myself thinking about the past or worried about the future, I try to pause and be thankful for the present. Gratitude, I found, has been the antidote for tough times. Uncertainty can make anyone panic. But embracing the gifts that you have in front of you right now, even if it is something you consider small, goes a long way toward your healing.”

To learn more about colorectal cancer care at Levine Cancer Institute, visit online.