In the gym, Matt Long felt unstoppable.
The 35-year-old would spend hours running, lifting weights and doing other exercises to stay fit for his position as an officer on the Martinsville Police Department.
He took pride in developing the strength to deal with the adversity that he would face in his life and his job. He could handle any situation, a confidence that extended to his life outside police work.
But cancer and the resulting treatment shattered that poise.
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Long’s bout with melanoma tested not only his physical will but his mental strength as well. He had to consider his own death for the first time, rely on others to help him when immobilized and realize that he would have to place his trust in others in order to make it through his treatment.
“You have to know you can be weak and strong at the same time,” Long said. “It was a scary thing, the day I finally looked at the doctor and gave up trying to be the tough guy.”
A small mole was the start of Long’s problems.
His wife, Whitney, noticed a strange-looking blemish on the lower-left side of his back in spring 2014. She urged him to go into the doctor to have it looked at.
He had never really paid attention to his skin and did not see a dermatologist regularly for checkups. He agreed to go but wanted to wait until after the family vacation in June.
Long scheduled an appointment with Dr. Christopher Bohyer of the Greenwood-based practice Dermatology Inc. Bohyer did not waste time identifying the spot as probable melanoma and wanted to do additional tests to see the extent.
Long was on a treadmill, getting in his regular training miles, when he received the call from Bohyer. He had cancer.
“I remember getting off that treadmill and sitting up in the corner of the gym for 45 minutes just crying like a baby. What was I going to tell my wife? What was I going to tell my kids?” he said.
‘Terrible, terrible pain’
Bohyer recommended seeing a surgeon to have the tissue around the mole checked for cancer as well.
The cancerous section extended .75 centimeter into his skin, and surgery was scheduled in early September to have it cut out. Doctors also offered to do a lymph node biopsy to ensure that the cancer hadn’t spread throughout the rest of his body.
“Being a father of two, 35 years old and married, I still had a lot of time to live. I decided that wasn’t an optional biopsy, it was a mandatory biopsy,” Long said.
Doctors injected a blue dye into the area around where his mole was removed, what Long called one of the worst pains he’s ever felt.
“I had about eight seconds of terrible, terrible pain, then another eight seconds on the other side,” he said.
The dye would demonstrate where fluid from near the mole had traveled in the body. The test revealed that the mole had possibly spread cancerous cells to lymph nodes under his left armpit and in his groin, which required additional biopsies.
Surgically removed samples showed that there was no cancer in his groin but that the lymph nodes in his armpit were cancerous. That diagnosis was the first one that truly scared him — to hear that this disease may have multiplied out of his and any doctor’s control.
“That first time someone tells you you can die, you don’t swallow that very well,” he said.
Another operation in late September took out 16 lymph nodes from under his left arm. Long stayed in the hospital for two days, letting an 8-inch incision curving underneath his arm heal slightly before he could come home.
‘It wasn’t sitting well’
Long took a leave from his position at the police department to have the surgery. The procedure left a large cavity under his arm, requiring him to keep a wrap around his upper body to protect the wound.
Slowly, muscle and tissue started growing back, though it wasn’t quickly enough to his liking. The repeated surgeries and down time to heal was discouraging for him, since he had always taken pride in his independence.
“I was the guy always saying that I didn’t need any help or anyone else,” Long said. “I’ve always had confidence and control. The job that I’m in, I’ve always helped others do everything else. Now, for the first time in my life, other people were doing that for me. It wasn’t sitting well.”
After the multiple surgeries and biopsies, doctors told Long that they believed they had removed all of the cancer and that the rest of his body was healthy.
The next step was to begin healing. Physical therapy was needed on his arm to regain his range of motion.
Long also started seeing Dr. Pablo Bedano, a hematologist and oncologist with Community Cancer Center South. The next step of treatment would include the administration of interferon.
The proteins are made naturally in a fully functional immune system and regulate how the body attacks diseases and foreign agents in the body, Bedano said.
Starting on Nov. 1, Long took interferon five days a week for 30 days. His sessions would take two hours at a time, and he was forced to sit patiently while the proteins dripped into his system through a port in his chest.
He started receiving 60,000 units of interferon each week, and the amount was slowly reduced during the six weeks.
Long started back to light duty at the police department, trying paperwork and other low-impact assignments to ease himself back into the daily process of police work.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I felt that I needed to, if anything for my own sanity,” he said.
‘I wasn’t acting like me’
Long felt that he was slowly regaining control of his life. But once again, his body betrayed him.
He was weeks into his interferon treatment, and he and his family were preparing for an event for his grandmother. In the middle of the dinner, Long started getting twinges of uneasiness that caught him off guard.
“I just felt like something wasn’t right. I wasn’t acting like me,” he said.
They left the benefit dinner early, and Long’s condition spiraled downward. Within a matter of hours, he was lying on his kitchen floor curled up and crying. Anxiety overwhelmed him.
“I didn’t have any idea what was going on,” he said. “I told my wife to get the kids out of the room, since I didn’t know what was happening. I was way out there.”
One of Long’s friends, a minister, came over that night to talk him through the confusion. They walked through Long’s neighborhood, wandering more than four miles as they talked through the emotions that Long was suffering through.
Finally, Long felt that he was calm and returned home. He was able to fall into a restless sleep but woke a short time later in a panic.
His family drove him to the emergency room at Community Hospital South, where the staff provided him with anti-anxiety medication before he was sent home.
The medicine worked temporarily, but 24 hours later, Long was back in the emergency room. Bedano was able to see him that afternoon.
‘I’m not crazy’
Long doesn’t have a clear recollection of that period. But he remembers his conversation with his oncologist. Bedano determined that the interferon that Long had been taking ignited a mental firestorm, creating a chemical imbalance wreaking havoc on his mind.
“I spent the next three to five days in the hospital, just to get moving. They told me that they were done with interferon, but that it would take up to six weeks to get that medicine out of your body,” Long said.
Bedano suggested that while that process was ongoing, he should see a psychiatrist. That could help Long cope with the anxiety and depression that he found himself in.
“That wasn’t something that I was ready for. I was thinking, ‘That’s not me. I’m not crazy,'” Long said.
His psychiatrist, who had experience working with police officers, helped him realize that treating his illness wasn’t a display of weakness. She prescribed him drugs to help control the upheaval in his mind, pleading with him to work with her and stay on the medication until the interferon was safely out of his system.
For weeks, Long worked within the schedule his doctor had outlined. When he tried to make his own path and drop the dosage he was taking, he found himself dealing with another episode.
The situation was humbling.
“The guy in me was saying that I could beat this by myself. It didn’t work,” he said.
Long continued with the treatment. Not until six weeks went by weaning himself off interferon that he woke up and finally felt like himself again. That was the start of climb to normalcy dealing with his disease.
‘Now I take precautions’
Throughout early 2015, his doctors appointments became less and less frequent. His body felt strong, he went back to work full time and active duty and started hitting the gym again.
Just as important, he’s regained the confidence that had defined him for most of his life.
“My wife says to me that she’s so glad I’m back to that guy that every now and then has a little bit of an arrogant side,” he said. “I understand that now.”
A diagnosis of melanoma required Long to rethink his idea of being healthy. He is more conscious about protecting his skin, slathering himself and his kids in SPF 50 sunscreen. He keeps bottles of it in each of their cars.
He’s diligent about applying it every morning, even if he doesn’t know he’s going to be in the sun.
“I’ve got all of my family going in now to get checked. I’ve got friends I’m trying to get in. It’s one of those things I didn’t worry about before, so now I take precautions,” he said.
Long also has started seeing a dermatologist on a regular basis, six times a year, in addition to seeing Bedano.
“It’s scary. There are days I go into the dermatologist and pray they don’t find anything,” he said. “But I can’t sit around and always think the negative is going to happen, so I have to get in there.”
The experience has reshaped Long’s definition of weakness and provided him a better understanding about the struggles of mental health.
“I didn’t get depression. I didn’t get anxiety. I didn’t get panic. I was introduced to that,” he said. “I feel like it was a sign to me that, yeah, I’m a caring person who looks out for others, but I also had to give a little further than you have.”
Who: Matthew Long
When diagnosed: June 2014
Type of cancer: Melanoma
Treatment: Surgery to remove the cancerous mole and lymph nodes; administration of interferon.
How cancer changed me: I was the guy always saying that I didn’t need any help or anyone else. I’ve always had confidence and control. The job that I’m in, I’ve always helped others do everything else. Now, for the first time in my life, other people were doing that for me.
What cancer taught me: Sometimes you have let other people help you. When I let my doctors take control, I fell into the best hands in the world. I’ll never be able to repay them. They helped me get back to me.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: This is life. This is not one of those things you can play around with and toy around with.