Late morning sunlight streams through third floor Demaray windows as junior Reuel Mateo enters classroom 355 and looks across the faces he has come to know during his first six weeks of class since completing his final cancer treatment. Removing his black, Heisenberg-style hat, he leans back into his tablet-arm desk and looks up at his Popular Music Survey professor.
Mateo has worn the hat, a tribute to his favorite television show, Breaking Bad, since he began his cancer treatments. Having completed his final therapy treatments a few months ago, he now wears the hat as a reminder of what he has been through.
“Today, we’re going to talk a lot about grunge music,” adjunct music teacher Daniel Helseth said. “Not because that was my favorite time period … but because it changed everything, and it changed it fast.”
Running his hands through his thin, black hair, Mateo’s fingers linger on the bald spots that pockmark the back of his head. Less than a year ago, his hair was thick and coarse to the touch. Now, most of it falls limp against his scalp, matted down from wearing his hat. Less than nine months ago, he was planning his life out, setting his goals and preparing himself to leave a mark upon the world.
“The big idea is the social impact of the music,” Helseth said. “It changed the way people dressed, how people perceived the world.”
Now, he said he sees his life in a whole new light.
“It’s something that has fundamentally changed the music scene,” Helseth said. “And it all started right here in Seattle.”
He sees it as an opportunity to affect change, show love to the people he knows and embrace a new way of living out his life.
“I’ve fought with cancer, and I’ve come out on the other side,” Mateo said. “I’m not looking back. Another chapter is opening in my life… It’s time for post-treatment Reuel.”
In September 2013, Mateo was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his left nostril after waking up a week earlier to streams of blood flowing from his nose. In November, Mateo learned that after three months of chemotherapy, he would have to undergo an additional 35 rounds of radiation therapy, the maximum amount permitted by the National Cancer Association.
By January, Mateo had lost 60 pounds, all of his hair and was unable to eat solid food or drink any liquids. He received only liquid sustenance through a feeding tube installed in his abdomen for roughly two months. Since returning to SPU, Mateo has gained seven pounds, his hair has grown back and he has resumed a regular solid food diet.
“It’s a win-win,” Mateo said. “My mother’s been hounding me for years to lose weight… Plus the ladies love it.”
On Thursday, Mateo went in for his first cancer check-up appointment since returning to SPU. All tests for cancer were negative.
“Just got the results of my PET scan today… All signs of cancer in my head and neck are negative!!!! They see nothing abnormal,” Mateo wrote in a May 15 Facebook post. “I’ve been renewed for another season.” A Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan is a radioactive imaging test that looks for traces of specific diseases in the body.
After receiving his final radiation therapy treatment in January, Mateo was able to coach SPU’s Sixth Hill intramural basketball team.
“There were times during my recovery that I was convinced that the only way I was going to see everybody was if I left the hospital horizontally, in a body bag,” Mateo said. “But knowing there were people on this campus missing me… It kept me going.”
Later that month, Mateo finished his final physical therapy session and received permission from his doctor to re-enroll as a student at SPU. During a Super Bowl party at his pastor’s house in February, Mateo ate solid food for the first time since beginning his cancer treatments.
“I just got really angry,” Mateo said. “Everyone was eating really good-looking food… When I realized that my treatments were done, that my body could handle it, I forced myself to eat.”
Two weeks ago, his feeding tube fell out of his chest after waking up in the middle of the night during a coughing fit. “[After the tube fell out] there was just this little open hole in my body,” Mateo said. “So I called my doctor… He told me that it was natural, to cover it with a Band-Aid and it would be fine.”
Currently a commuter student with a 12-credit class load, Mateo said that since returning to SPU, he has been focused on developing his role as a student leader. “Coming back, seeing all my friends… It’s reminded me of who I am,” Mateo said. “I’m not just that kid who had cancer… I’m a friend, a leader … an entertainer.”
Director of Multi-Ethnic Programs Susan Lane said that she first saw Mateo’s passion for leadership during SPU’s Early Connections in his freshman year. “From the moment I met him, I could see he was going to be a leader,” Lane said. “…That he was going to influence and change this campus.”
About 10 years ago, Lane said she was diagnosed with thyroid and breast cancer. Because of her own experience, she said that she has sympathized with Mateo’s treatments and has kept a close eye on his condition.
“Reuel has kept a constant thread of positivity throughout all of this,” Lane said. “Cancer is a very scary thing… We never in a million years think we’ll be the ones who get it. But Reuel’s just someone who’s going to always be out and about … someone who’s going to lead and achieve.”
During homecoming this year, Mateo was awarded one of the two SPU People of Promise awards given out annually to each class. Though he lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Southeast Seattle, about a 20-minute drive from SPU, Mateo said that he prefers to spend the majority of his day on campus. “Talking to old friends, making new ones… It gives me a reason to get up and start living again,” Mateo said.
An intended business major, Mateo is set to graduate in 2016. After he graduates, he hopes to work within the Seattle community. “I’ve realized that my experience with cancer isn’t about me,” Mateo said. “It’s about serving the others around me, about using my story as a fire that inspires and gives back to them.”
Mateo is required to take 24 vitamin supplements every day for the next two months. For the next three months, he is required to attend additional cancer check-up appointments at Group Health Medical Center.
“I will always have cancer cells in my body,” Mateo said. “It’s just a matter of suppressing them so that they don’t inflame, making sure that they stay nonresponsive.”
In addition to his supplements and check-up appointments, Mateo works to maintain a healthy lifestyle by walking about a walk a mile a day, eating a fruit- and vegetable- heavy diet, and sleeping around eight hours a night.
“[Fighting with cancer] was like going through hell,” Mateo said. “But until the day I die, I refuse to let this keep me away from the things I like … the people and places that I love.”
In his music survey class, chairs creak and backpacks zip shut as students anticipate the end of class. Hushed chatter fills the room as students check their phones, collect their books and prepare to leave.
“Woodstock was like three days of hippie heaven,” Helseth said, referring to the 1969 music and art fair. “As they helicoptered [the performers] in over the crowd, they realized that this was much more than a festival … that it was bigger than them.”
Reaching under his chair, Mateo grabs his hat and places it back on his head.
“It was an amazing musical experience,” Helseth said. “But socially, it was a symbol of something even greater.”
Adjusting it to his head, Mateo stands and straightens out the brim of his hat as Helseth dismisses the class. Falling in line with his classmates, Mateo smiles, laughs and walks into the crowd of students exiting through the third floor Demaray hallway.