In the lower gym of Royal Brougham Pavilion, Reuel Mateo jumps up and down, stretching out his legs and arms. He watches the Sixth Hill intramural basketball team he coaches, noting the faces of new players and the changes in the ones he coached last year.
One player had grown taller and bought new shoes. Another changed his hairstyle.
“Tonight’s game is extremely important for us,” Mateo said. “We’ve got to look alive, come out strong.”
Mateo is dressed in corduroy slacks, a button-down shirt and tie, and a loose-fitting grey sweater. He covers his bald head with a Heisenberg-style hat, a tribute to Breaking Bad, his favorite TV show.
He gives off an air of professionalism as he reaches into his black leather suitcase and pulls out a pencil and a pad. He begins to talk game plan, pointing out players and problems in the lineup.
After spending the past five months undergoing three rounds of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation therapy, Mateo showed up Tuesday night to coach his former floor’s intramural basketball team.
Mateo was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his left nostril in September 2013. He started chemotherapy later that month after he lost vision in his left eye and developed a heart murmur. In October, Mateo went home after completing three rounds of therapy. A well-known face on campus, Mateo would have been a junior this year.
In November 2013, Mateo learned that after three months of chemotherapy, he would have to undergo an additional 35 rounds of radiation therapy. This is the maximum amount allowed. Starting on Dec. 20 and administered every weekday for a month and a half, the radiation left him 60 pounds thinner, hairless and unable to eat solid foods or drink any liquids.
“It was like a job,” Mateo said. “My responsibility was to get this treatment every day.”
Treatments took roughly 20 minutes. Mateo said during treatments, he was required to wear a mask on his head and strap into the radiation machine. Unlike chemotherapy, the effects of radiation can linger in the body for up to six months. Mateo’s symptoms include thickened saliva, burnt throat and vocal chords, and severe fatigue.
“It feels like I’m sunburnt… I’m walking through mud all the time,” Mateo said. “Everything tastes like a mix of metal and battery acid.”
Over the course of the treatments, Mateo also lost his ability to speak and walk. About two weeks ago, his voice returned after he recovered from the final round of radiation. He still can’t eat solid foods.
“I would describe the month of December as a war of attrition,” Mateo said. “I had to want to live… I couldn’t speak, eat or drink.”
For the entire month of December, Mateo received all of his fluids and nutrients through an IV drip. On Dec. 30, he received an operation to install a feeding tube directly into his stomach because he couldn’t swallow food.
“It was a relief to get the feeding tube,” Mateo said. “I had been puking out [the IV fluid] all month.”
Currently, Mateo is on a liquid diet. He is allowed to drink blended fruits and vegetables only. Once his throat has healed completely, his doctor said the feeding tube will be removed and Mateo can switch to solid foods. Healing time for radiation treatment is different for each person and depends on the age of the patient, cancer type, and duration of the treatment.
After being bedridden the entire month of December, Mateo said his main goal is to work his body back into shape. Soon, he hopes to gain enough muscle mass to be on his feet all day. Although official therapy sessions ended in January, Mateo continues to walk a mile a day.
“With exercise comes energy and a stronger appetite,” Mateo said. “It’s like I’ve been in hibernation and I’m just now starting to wake up.”
Mateo said coaching basketball is part of his healing process. He said it gives him a sense of routine.
“[Coaching] is like an extension of my therapy,” Mateo said. “The doctor wants me to get out of the house… This is a part of that.”
At Tuesday night’s game, the mood is comfortable and relaxed. His tone is stern and competent. But his dialogue is playful, interspersed with outbursts of laughter and jokes. He leans over to the player on the bench and motions to a player on the opposing team.
“That guy’s got the dirtiest white-man Afro I’ve ever seen,” Mateo said. “Ladies, would you date this man?”
The players laugh, a mix of smirks and deferential nods.
Sophomore Nathan Preece, a center, says Mateo hasn’t missed a step since he coached the team last year.
“He hasn’t lost his hunger to win,” Preece said. “He shows up, ready to rock and roll, entertain us and lead us to a victory.”
Mateo claps his hands together.
“We played a good game tonight,” he said. “We lost … but don’t dwell on that. Take it, swallow and move on.”