Matthew Mewhorter is a two year survivor of colorectal cancer. Many in the online community are familiar with Matthew’s drawings as the Cancer Owl. During our interview we discussed his experience being diagnosed and treated for colorectal cancer, his work as an art therapist and how and why he created the Cancer Owl.
Lee: Matthew, welcome to the show. How are you?
Matthew: I’m wonderful, thank you, how are you doing?
Lee: I’m doing great. I appreciate you making the time to share your story with the Colon Cancer podcast audience, I really appreciate it.
Matthew: Wonderful, yeah, thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited. I’ve been excited about this for a while.
Lee: Awesome, I love hearing that. So, how did colo-rectal cancer become part of your life?
Matthew: November of 2014. I had the official diagnosis of colo-rectal cancer. After having about a year’s worth of symptoms. Yeah, November of 2014, my daughter was just a little over a year old, and this with the knowledge that my grandfather died of colon cancer when I was young. So, it was a dramatic shift. I mean, it was like something that kind of took the wind out of me, but it was something I kind of saw coming a little bit, because of having bleeding symptoms almost a year previous, and because of so many stomach issues in my family I thought, well, you know, maybe it’s colitis, maybe it’s IBS, or maybe I just need to stop eating like the spicy food and stuff like that like I love, and maybe it’s stress and my body’s reacting to stress. My job was very stressful at that time, so I was thinking, well let me see about just trying to make my job better. I went and got therapy. So I kind of saw it coming, but nothing really prepares you for hearing those words on the phone, it’s cancer. I heard that on the stairwell, going, at my work. It’s an old house, so these wooden stairs, and I’m walking down the stairs, and I had the colonoscopy and they told me the found a mass, but it could be anything. It might not be cancer. The day after I was just on the phone with the Doctor and she just came right out with it. Like, didn’t spare me any time to prepare. She’s just like yeah, it’s cancer, and I was just walking down the stairs and I almost tripped and fell down the flight of stairs.
Lee: Isn’t that something? We all have that exact image in our mind of where we were and what we were doing when we heard those words, right?
Matthew: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Lee: So did you basically kind of just try to deal with the symptoms, and I don’t want to use the word ignore, because it sounds like you tried different things, but did it take a year before you actually went and saw a medical Doctor?
Matthew: A little less than a year, actually, because it was a little bit before, a month or two before Thanksgiving. 2013, I was having bleeding on and off, like when I went to the bathroom. Then, yeah. I tried to, like you said, I tried to do some things about it. I tried maybe eating this different, maybe eating that different, maybe exercising a little more, maybe taking down my stress, then it would kind of go away for a little bit. Then it would return, so I’m figuring, well oh, it worked when I did this, so I went and saw a Doctor, and I started putting it off. I even had a friend over Thanksgiving that came to visit and he goes, I’m worried about you, bud. He goes, I really think you need to get that seen. He’s like, you know. I’m sure you’re fine, and that started putting it in my head that I needed to see a Doctor, and at the time I didn’t have insurance, and I was getting insurance stuff taken care of. So, I just, and I didn’t want to worry my wife, and I mean, we were new parents and I just was like, seeing if on my own I could kind of get this thing to go away, because I had these symptoms back in 2007 but it was just a polyp, when I got a colonoscopy. So I thought, well maybe that’s all it is, and maybe I can just change a few things, because it went away when I ate like, a vegan/vegetarian diet over the years. So, it was about in the summer, July I think it was, when I went and saw a Doctor. He was an older doctor on his way to retirement. He’s like oh, classic colitis. He’s like, you Scandinavian types, you know. You’re, it’s probably a dairy intolerance. Cut out dairy for two weeks and it’ll probably go away. He’s like, but I’ll set you up with the GI, but he’s like, it’s not going to be until December, because we, only for cancer cases, people we think have cancer. We only set up, we’d only make it more immediate if we thought it was cancer. He’s like, but you’ve got classic colitis. So, I had to wait all the way until December from summertime to get my colonoscopy, and I saw the GI. She’s like oh, it’s classic IBS. She was preparing me on how to manage IBS and so, you know, it was just, it wasn’t anything I was terribly worried about. The Doctor seemed pretty confident, but little by little, I was having more and more worries. You know, staying off the mystic, but yeah. So I had to wait a while because, and it was funny, by the time I started seeing a radiation oncologist, I told him how the Doctor said I had classic colitis. He’s like, that’s funny, because if you’d talked to one of us, we’d say all your symptoms are classic rectal cancer.
Lee: Of course. Depends on perspective.
Lee: So how old were you when you were diagnosed?
Matthew: I was 35.
Lee: So, why did you have the first colonoscopy in 2007?
Matthew: I had the first colonoscopy, because I was having similar bleeding symptoms, and also I was having a very stressful job at the time. It was similar work that I had when I was having the stressful year in 2014. It was like, similar circumstances, even the same boss. I returned to a work place that had similar people that I worked with, with a similar work environment. It was back then, and they said that, it was 2007. I was bleeding when I was going to the bathroom, but it wasn’t as severe as what drove me to get another colonoscopy. So, I just got a colonoscopy then just to kind of clear my base, and they said yeah, it’s a polyp. We cut it out. We’ll do a biopsy and let you know if we see anything, they never contacted me or anything. So, I just went on with my life and didn’t really follow up with that Doctor.
Lee: I see. So what stage were you diagnosed?
Matthew: I was diagnosed stage 2 colo-rectal. Which I was really thankful, I mean I was almost preparing, I was starting to have a lot of guilt before my staging. It seemed like forever before I was staged. I was so nervous because I’m like man, it’s been like a year, you know. I remember a year ago my friend telling me, I confided in him, and telling me, and I waited. It’s been almost a year, so I was pretty thankful that it didn’t go past a stage 2, and it was all localized, so it didn’t spread. I didn’t have any, it didn’t travel anywhere, so. My treatment was, I started out 25 rounds of chemo with radiation at the same time, I had to sign a waver for that because they still considered that experimentals that they told me. So I took xeloda, four pills in the morning, four at night. Only on the days I did radiation. I then took a minor break from that in early February, and then late March I got surgery, resection which gave me an ostomy bag, and then I was prescribed up to 6 months of xeloda, 3 in the morning and 3 at night while I was, you know, had the ostomy bag. Then, after the xeloda was finished in October, I was, I had a little bit of a break before having my reversal in December, and here I am.
Lee: So you’re coming off close to a year since your reversal.
Lee: So, your scans since your treatment ended have all been good?
Matthew: Oh yeah. Lymph node negative, I am NED currently, and in fact my last scan, my last exam with the surgeon was so good that she’s just going to re-look at me in a year rather than 6 months.
Matthew: Thank you. Thank you. Everything has been completely clean, completely clear. The surgery got everything out, I mean absolutely everything, so that we, we did follow up chemo for up to 6 months and cleared out which is, I mean by October last year, that’s when they gave me the news after I got scanned some more that everything checked out. Excellent.
Lee: Fantastic. So you mentioned your quote, stressful job. What do you do?
Matthew: I’m a therapist, but I’m still what’s considered a resident in counseling, meaning that I’m almost licensed, but I do a lot of the dirty work, and sort of more of the bottom of the totem pole toward. I’ve been a counselor now for well over a decade, about 12 years. I’ve done work with at-risk teens before that, but working with a lot of at-risk populations, you know, some pretty tough situations, and did a lot of what’s called in home counseling where you go into homes, destabilize them. The homes that are, really in danger of out of home placement removals and all that stuff. My work is becoming more and more sophisticated as I’m getting closer to licensure. Still, it’s a lot of learning, it’s a lot of working for places that have a lot of high need, a lot of documentation, a lot of balancing, between the clinical work and the way the documentation is done. It can be very high stress. Plus, when I started at the place I’m working now, there was just a lot of needs they had. I kept saying, yes to everything. I kept saying yes to this and yes to that. I was doing way more than I should have, and I wasn’t recharging my batteries at all. It kind of overtook, and I was heading straight for burnout.
Lee: Now, you use art as part of your therapy?
Matthew: I do. I do. Almost entirely. After my diagnosis I was able to really streamline what I did. My workplace has been incredible as far as just saying okay, let’s take this load off of you and have you just focus on what you’re really good at, and so I do just almost entirely outpatient with exception of supervising some staff, apart from that I mostly just do outpatient, and it’s mostly art, and I do mindfulness. Also, mindfulness based stress reduction as well. Mostly for teenagers, so I do a lot of meditation now in my sessions, a lot of meditation, a lot of art expression. Very calm, very chill, in my sessions.
Lee: So I need to introduce you to a couple that I interviewed last week.
Lee: David [inaudible:12:29] and his wife Tamara Green. David is a cancer survivor, and they created a meditation app, targeting cancer patients and caregivers.
Matthew: Oh wow. Yeah, I’d love to get hooked up. That would be awesome.
Lee: So stay tuned for that episode coming up, I’ll share that with you and with the audience. So, now that we’re talking about art, many of those online that followed your story Matthew, particularly on Facebook, know you for your work as a comic artist with the Cancer Owl. How did that come to be?
Matthew: I was so thankful to have my therapist in place when I was diagnosed with cancer. One of the things he really suggested to me was to start art journaling my experience. He said do it for self care first, but it could be something that could benefit a lot of other people, so I kind of had the idea, I started art journaling, but I kind of had art journaled with the intent of maybe being able to share it with people, and I was. After my re-section surgery, I was in the hospital for 5 days and recovering and, when I could sit up I started art journaling and I just decided to draw an owl. The idea, because I thought of using people, like drawing myself in cartoon form, and it just didn’t sit well with me. I loved the idea of drawing animals instead. I felt like I just, it allowed for people to talk about it by looking at cute animals as opposed to looking at cartoon versions of myself. I just, and I liked how the way I drew the owls really simply on purpose, so I could draw it several different ways, and it was easy to draw, easy to incorporate in outfits, and different angles and different expressions very easily. So that’s, so it just started with me starting to chronicle my experience. I just, I wrote those comics straight from the gut. Exactly how I was feeling. I didn’t hold back.
Lee: No pun intended.
Matthew: Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah. Straight from the gut yeah, and yeah. I had, I didn’t hold back on just my thoughts and feelings about false sincerity of people, about what it’s like to sit there and have all these people saying things to you, and I wanted to create almost that feeling that even though you’re surrounded by people telling you this and telling you that, that it still has this lonely feeling about it. That almost feels like people talking at you, and so, if you look at my very first couple of comics, you don’t even see the people that I describe. You just see the Owl at the center with his word bubbles. I did that very much on purpose, as I wanted to kind of give this lonely sort of isolated feeling that cancer patients often have. Even if they’re surrounded by people.
Lee: Was there a reason why you chose the Owl specifically?
Matthew: I love owls. Owls are my favorite animal. Always have been. Owls are just very expressive, and they, I love how owls can look easily annoyed as much as sort of like, inquisitive. An owl’s expression I think captures people’s facial expressions very well. I feel like owls in particular capture personality very very well, and again it was kind of saying earlier too that the way that I drew the owl felt like something I could draw over and over, and I even thought later as I was releasing the comic is that owls, I mean, cats are the king of the Internet, but other animals that circulate very easily on the internet are owls and sloths. Since owls have always been my favorite animal, it just kind of made sense.
Lee: I see. Now, you from what I saw and the way you describe it, do you, you kind of put it pretty out there as far as how you felt some people interacted with you. Was there any backlash?
Matthew: Yeah. Yeah, I had a friend say have a nice life dude, we’re over. This is someone that, I released my first couple of comics, and this is a friend I’ve known since childhood. I mean, we haven’t lived in the same state in a really long time, but we always kept in touch, and he’s always been a little bit weird on the Internet. He had written, after I was diagnosed, he had written me and he was telling me. Well, I’d donate to you and all, but I’m going on this cruise, all this. I’m going to have a good time on the cruise and all this and that. Oh and hey, I’m writing a book. You want to do the pictures for it? You know, not offering to pay me for it or anything. You know. Kept bugging me when I needed to be doing this project, so they saw me do the comic and then he was confronting me really hard about my very first comic, which was basically, to give a little background on that first comic I released, it shows people saying, oh is there anything we can do? What can we do for you? Just tell us anything at all, and the owl says, well I do have a go fund me account. They’re like oh well, see you later. We’ll be praying for you. We’ll be thinking of you. I just left it at that, you know. I didn’t even show the owl as annoyed, I just showed the words there, and because he had written me right after diagnosis about not being able, and not that I cared. I didn’t care if anybody couldn’t donate. It’s just this false sincerity is what I was kind of challenging. He, this sort of false sincerity I think all cancer patients can relate to, but he just got very very angry with me about that because, he had made this statement about going on this cruise and this and that, not being able to afford to donate anything, and not that I cared. I was fine if he went on a cruise. It was just, I couldn’t believe, he was absolutely embodying my point of the first comic over and over. He wouldn’t let it alone on the line that he was getting me angry, and I was getting all of these great reviews over my first few comics, and he was spoiling it. Day one. Absolutely. Spoiling it, and just telling me, he was like, here’s what you need to be telling people with cancer. You need to be doing comics there like this. He never had cancer. No one in his family did. He’s telling me how to be a cancer patient.
Lee: We all have stories like that, right?
Matthew: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. So I just tell him I’m like, you know, I confronted him back and then he got angry because I called him on it. Then he was like, our friendship’s over, have a nice life dude, and all this. So that was one of the only ones I had. Other than that, I’ve had glowing reviews. I’ve had very very very very few negative backlash reviews.
Lee: Do you feel, now I’m going to get clinical on the counselor here, do you feel that this gives you a vehicle to be someone through your comic that perhaps you’re not quite as comfortable being in person?
Matthew: Yeah, actually. That’s a good way to put it. It’s definitely, a lot of the comic has a lot of, now I’m missing the word I’m looking for on it, but basically able to extract some things and bring it outside of myself in a different character. I made it a point to let people know that the owl was me, so yes. Certain things, because a lot of people got to see the real cheery side of me, which that’s what most people see, but some of the cynical feelings I allowed to come forward a little more in the comic. Some of the more annoyed feelings that I had, you know, that was a little harder to do. So yes, and I allowed a lot of things. Like the way I illustrate cancer, to also be that to sort of extract outside of myself a little bit.
Lee: Is there a particular comic that you’ve produced, Matthew, that has, that you’re particularly proud of?
Matthew: Yeah. So you have cancer is my favorite that I put out. I took a long time on it, it took me weeks to put together, I’m very proud of it because it’s a love letter to cancer patients. It rounds up all my thoughts and feelings about the cancer experience, and it’s my way of giving back. It was me, toward the end of that journey. Not quite done with it, as far as the treatments and everything. It was kind of my way of looking back and giving back, and I feature that even if you go on my website, it’ll say if you’re just diagnosed with cancer, click here. I’m very proud of that one.
Lee: Where can people find that online, Matthew?
Lee: Cancer Owl dot com. Very good. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes for this episode, too.
Matthew: Great. Great.
Lee: Well as we wrap up Matthew, and I know you’ve been a fan and supporter of the podcast so you know what my next question is, and that is for folks who are listening to our conversation and they themselves or someone they care about was recently diagnosed, what words of advice do you have for that person?
Matthew: Some of my words are, for a while [inaudible:22:14]. Breathe first. Also, one of my, another word that I use and almost want to turn into a hashtag, is most folks are awesome. As cynical as I get in a few of my comics, that’s actually really having a little fun with a minority. Most people are awesome. Look for those folks, and look for support. My third thing I say is never shut up. What I mean by that is that there’s been this culture surrounding cancer to where so many people, and I think why people have connected to the comic, is because so many people have written me privately to tell me that, you know, they don’t feel like they can talk about it. They feel very alone, you know. People shut them out. My advice to the people who are diagnosed is, don’t allow people to push you in a corner and make you be quiet. Don’t shut up.
Lee: I love that.
Matthew: In fact, never shut up.
Lee: We need to make T-shirts.
Matthew: Yeah. I know. It probably will be. I’m actually in the process of designing some T-shirts and that’s, that is an idea. Yeah. Never shut up, and reach out to people. I have found, I accredit Cancer Owl to being a very big part of my successful recovery, because it has been a constant outlet. Maybe you’re not artistic, and that’s fine. Maybe you’re not a writer for a blog or do a podcast, but you can get on a cancer support group. You know, for colon cancer, colon town is this phenomenal hub that you can join on Facebook to connect and reach. Just talk to people. Reach out. Don’t feel like you have to do this by yourself, because you don’t. There are so many opportunities not to be alone, and I know that there’s a lot of people that say well, you know, let’s respect people’s decisions. If they want to be quiet and not tell anybody, honestly, and maybe this might make me a hair unpopular. I kind of challenge that a little bit. I like to say, you know what. As a therapist too, it helps to talk about it, and while I will respect your decision not to, respectfully I’ll challenge that a little, too. To say, you know, this is a hard thing to deal with by yourself. We need people. One of the first things my oncologist asks me, he says, he looked at me and my wife and goes, how’s your marriage?
Matthew: Yeah. He says I can’t tell you how many people come in my office that don’t have anybody.
Lee: That’s true. We know a lot of them, don’t we?
Matthew: Yeah, a lot, that are just, that by themselves, you know. So yeah, there’s some real heroes I’ve come to find, in the colon cancer world, that are heroes of mine just simple by speaking up, you know. Nathan, Drew Allen, and Steven Estrada, people that just have said you know, they’re talking about it. Reaching out so never shut up, most folks are awesome, and breathe.
Lee: I love those, and you are pretty open about how meaningful your wife and your daughter are to you, so I know like myself, I’m just as blessed to have an absolutely amazing wife and family, and it certainly makes a difference. You’re absolutely right. So, in addition to your website, at cancer owl dot com, where else can people find you on social media?
Matthew: You can find me on Facebook, search in Cancer Owl on Facebook, @CancerOwl is my Twitter handle. I’ll be honest though, I’m the worse tweeter on the planet. I mean, I just don’t know about that, about Twitter anymore. I keep it, but I have an Instagram, which I’m growing quite a bit. So you can find Cancer Owl on Instagram. Also, I’m beginning, and I haven’t really readily announced it yet, but I don’t think there’s a problem in me doing so. I’ve already blogged a little bit, before I had cancer, which is phenomenal. I call it Facebook for cancer patients. I had cancer is incredible.
Lee: They’re great on Instagram, too.
Matthew: Yes, they are. They’re awesome, and they have given me the opportunity to do, to feature cartoons directly on their site, so there’s going to be cartoons of mine that will be made specifically for I had cancer, so be on the look out for those. There’s one that’s going to be posted, and so I’m really glad to team up with that organization.
Lee: Terrific. Well Matthew, thank you so much for taking time to share your story with me and our listeners. I really appreciate it. Congratulations on being NED, no evidence of disease, and many many many lifetime of that being part of your life. I know you’re an inspiration to those of us who aren’t there yet, including myself, but we want to join that club no doubt, so thank you for spending time with me, and I wish you all the best.