At 6 a.m. on Aug. 25, Reuel Mateo awoke to the metallic taste of blood between his teeth. Raising his hands, he felt a sticky stream of blood flowing from his nose.
“I thought it was just another nose bleed,” Mateo said. “But the bleeding wouldn’t stop. My face felt like a faucet.”
Mateo remembers running into the bathroom and seeing the smears of dark blood across his pale face. He remembers the panicked pounding of his head as he washed himself off and stuffed his nose with tissues.
That was the moment he realized that something was terribly wrong.
Mateo was suffering from the symptoms of a cancerous tumor that had been developing in his left nasal cavity for more than a year. He began to suspect something was wrong after he started experiencing chronic headaches his freshman year at Seattle Pacific. He says he chose to ignore the signs, self-medicating through Tylenol and aspirin.
A 20-year-old Seattle native, Mateo would have been a junior at SPU this year, but has been forced to withdraw because of his cancer. Last year he lived on Sixth Hill.
During both his freshman and sophomore years, he was involved in playing and coaching basketball intramural teams. A well-known face on campus, Mateo says that he chose SPU because of its small size and highly-accredited business program.
Not just a nose bleed
By 12 p.m., the blood began to pour out from his nose again, this time accompanied by a splitting headache and blurred vision in his left eye.
With bloodstained fingers, Mateo called his mother and told her what was happening. His parents, who were on a cruise celebrating their 25th anniversary, instructed Mateo to have his brother drive him to the emergency room.
At the emergency room, Mateo received nearly eight hours of blood and vision tests until he was moved into radiology and given an MRI.
“The doctor told me that I had a large tissue mass in my left nasal cavity,” Mateo said. “It felt just like getting a death sentence.”
He remembers sitting in the exam room with his brother and asking the doctor how the cancer had developed.
“She told me that it wasn’t my fault,” Mateo said. “She told me that I was just unlucky.”
Mateo stabilized and was discharged from the hospital around 8 p.m. with instructions to go to Virginia Mason Hospital, a premier cancer care center, if the bleeding returned. His parents caught a last-minute flight and drove him home from the hospital.
Back to the hospital
Around midnight that night, the bleeding returned and Mateo’s parents rushed him to Virginia Mason.
When he got there, he was told that he would have to undergo surgery to stop the bleeding.
“The last question they asked me before I went under was if I had a living will,” Mateo said. “I was devastated. The scariest moment was realizing that something could go that wrong.”
Before the surgery, Mateo signed a consent form that gave all medical responsibility to his parents. From then on, his parents would make all the decisions regarding his health.
“It felt like I was signing my life away,” Mateo said. “My decisions were no longer mine.”
The surgery required the doctors to cauterize an artery in Mateo’s lower thigh that fed blood into his face. They also took a biopsy from the tissue mass behind his cheek. Due to the proximity of the tissue mass to his nose and mouth, Mateo was required to have a breathing tube installed prior to the surgery to keep blood from running down his throat.
While the tube was installed, Mateo communicated by writing on a notepad.
If he was in pain or needed anything, he was told to write it down and set the notepad in front of him.
After two days of recovery, the breathing tube was removed.
While Mateo was recovering, the results of the biopsy came back negative for cancer. Soon after, the doctors realized that they had biopsied the wrong tissue and would have to get another sample.
“The worst part was that I couldn’t have any meds 24 hours prior to the surgery,” Mateo said. “My dad and the nurse just had to watch me as I begged for anything to help with the headaches.”
The second biopsy tested positive for nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a soft tissue cancer that affects the Squeema cells of the nasal cavity. It is considered rare within the U.S., but it is common in Southeast Asia. It’s potentially life threatening if it’s not treated in early stages.
On Sept. 14, Mateo underwent the first of three rounds of chemotherapy. Because of the constant flow of liquids and drugs that would be administered, a pick line was installed in his left arm.
The drug initially used in the first round of Mateo’s chemotherapy was called Fluorouracil, or 5-FU. The drug proved too potent for his body, causing blindness in his left eye and a slight heart murmur to develop. After receiving about 70 percent of the treatment, he was switched to a less powerful drug.
“Losing my vision and feeling the heart murmur was terrifying,” Mateo said. “They were the first signs of my body failing.”
In the days following his first treatment, Mateo experienced nausea and around-the-clock headaches that required Oxycodone and steroid treatments every 12 hours.
Within weeks, he lost his hair, his immune system, and over 30 pounds.
“I felt like Walter White,” Mateo said, referencing his favorite TV show, Breaking Bad. “I would look in the mirror and see a shell of myself.”
Beginning to recover
Mateo’s headaches soon subsided and the vision in his left eye returned, this time stronger then ever.
Mateo’s had to wear glasses his entire life. After receiving his first treatment, an eye test showed he had 20/20 vision.
Mateo’s doctors guess his improved vision is due to the shrinking of his tumor, releasing pressure on his visual cortex.
On Sept. 25, Mateo was sent home from Virginia Mason. On Oct. 4, he went through his second round of chemotherapy.
Since then, he has been steadily recovering and has had no major setbacks. He says the biggest challenge he faces now is boredom and lack of socialization.
Away from friends
“I kind of feed off of being around people,” Mateo said. “The biggest things I’ve missed are my friends and family at SPU.”
At the urging of his oncologist, Mateo keeps a blog, entitled “Through My Four Eyes,” where he writes about his experience with cancer.
He says what he looks forward to most is visiting SPU and seeing his friends.
“It’s all about the relationships,” Mateo said. “Being away from my friends for so long has been crippling and discouraging.”
He said he is thankful to all of the friends and floormates who’ve made the effort to show him love and a listening ear.
“What scares me the most about cancer is the feelings of being alone,” Mateo said. “[My friends’] loyalty and compassion has helped me sift through some of that.”
Junior Morgan Hasegawa said the hardest part of watching his friend fight cancer is knowing the depression that can stem from it.
“I hope he can see that cancer is not a death sentence,” Hasegawa said. “It’s a call to live life more than we ever have before.”
Hasegawa said he watched his mother during her battle with lymphoma. Hasegawa also worked as a counselor at a children’s cancer camp called Camp Goodtimes last summer.
He said acceptance is the key to working through the cancer and living into a full life.
“The Reuel I know is unapologetically himself,” Hasegawa said. “He does what he wants and says how he feels.”
Another friend, junior David Benzar, said he hopes Mateo continues to be his outgoing self.
“He goes out of his way to notice people’s habits,” Benzar said. “He loved to make guys feel included, build those special relationships.”
Benzar said he could only begin to relate to the challenges that Mateo is going through physically and emotionally.
“You always hear about things like this, but you never think it’s going to happen to one of your best friends,” Benzar said. “Reuel knows no borders. Cancer won’t keep him from being back with us soon.”
Mateo hopes to return to SPU as a part-time student for winter quarter. He plans to continue pursuing a business degree and expects to take summer courses.
Before being diagnosed, Mateo was hired as a student service representative for ASSP. As a student service representative, he was required to go out into the community to work with local businesses, getting deals for SPU students.
Since he had already fulfilled his quota for fall quarter, ASSP is holding his position until he returns winter quarter.
Mateo’s final chemotherapy treatment is scheduled for Oct. 24. If there is no more improvement, radiation therapy will be administered.
Radiation therapy would include roughly 30 seven-minute rounds throughout six weeks.
It would burn his face and throat and require the installation of a feeding tube.
“Having cancer makes you realize the simple blessing of waking up in the morning without the taste of blood between your teeth,” Mateo said. “My eyes have been opened to everything I’ve been blessed with. Honestly, I don’t hate my life at all.”