MATHEW BIRSKOVICH (aka MattB)
By the time he was 22 months old, Matt was 100% blind. His advanced retinoblastoma had claimed first one eye and then the other. The doctors severed his optic nerves and removed his eyes to stop the tumors from spreading to his brain. Enduring much less refined treatment courses of radiation and chemotherapy in the late 70’s, Matt’s young body eventually recovered.
He adapted to his blindness. Mainstreamed into the public school system by 1st grade, Matt often found himself to be the only blind child in his class, grade, school, and even district. He showed great aptitude for academics, and with supplemental mobility training, he got around with a general ease, save for a few unwanted bumps and lumps. He was adventurous, climbing into treetops to feel the breeze and hear sounds carried on the wind. He learned to ride a two-wheel bike, and zoomed down the neighborhood’s steepest hill. He was fearless.
In addition to the physical challenges he faced due to his blindness, Matt also experienced tremendous grief from losses during his youth. In the summer of 1990, his father passed away after a 2-year battle with cancer. And it wasn’t even a year later when his baby sister drowned in the family’s backyard swimming pool over Memorial Day weekend. With a heavy heart, Matt kept pursuing life beyond these personal tragedies.
In high school at Bellarmine College Prep (Class of 1995), Matt’s artistic side began to blossom. His gifted imagination, cultivated early during childhood, gave way to a talent in writing both prose and poetry. Matt’s attuned senses of both empathy and comedic timing earned him key roles in school stage productions. His musical abilities, first exercised on the piano before his feet even reached the pedals, matured and Matt started playing the guitar. He hasn’t stopped since.
At 20, Matt underwent surgery on his leg, to retrieve a receding quadricep muscle and reattach its ligament to his knee. It was a painful recovery with Matt using a walker and crutches along the road to rehabilitation, but he healed and continued to get around just fine with his 3-year old guide dog, Nassau.
Just 6 months later in January of 1998, Matt had a benign tumor removed from his jaw. A routine cleaning had revealed some abnormally deep gum pockets. Diagnostic tests found the mass. He was told the tumor was of a reoccurring variety, and that he would need to keep an eye on the area.
Matt graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a Bachelor of the Arts in Guitar Performance playing both classical and electric. He played in various bands and ensembles, and taught lessons to fuel his dreams of becoming a rock star.
In 2002, Matt had surgery to remove a second benign tumor from his jawbone. He had 3 teeth pulled, and a piece of his hip bone was used as a graft to rebuild his jaw. Matt’s mouth was wired shut leaving him sore, achy, and on liquid diet for 8 weeks. Again, Matt recovered, and his trademark ravenous appetite returned.
Matt fell in and out of love a few times. He continued to hone his musical craft- playing and teaching guitar. A thoughtful guy with a big heart, Matt continued to attract all types of people to himself, celebrating each of his friends’ unique qualities and talents. One special friend, expanded Matt’s world by introducing him to active human echo location. Again, Matt adapted quickly, and his new mobility skill came in quite useful when his guide dog, Nassau, passed on. Matt has taught active human echo location, among other practical life skills, to visually impaired children at sleep-away camp imparting his knowledge and experience to those seeking a similar independence in life.
Last summer, Matt discovered a mass on his hip. Upon testing and surgical removal, doctors announced that Matt had a leiomyosarcoma tumor- the same type of cancer his father had died from at 42 years old, when Matt was just 13. After surgery to remove the mass, Matt submitted to follow-up scans, and he continued to show no signs of recurrence.
In May of 2010, Matt thought he had a sinus infection. He went to his doctor, received a course of antibiotics, but felt no better. After a few weeks of suffering congestion, painful headaches, and pressure in his sinuses, he returned to the doctor, only to be given an alternative course of antibiotics. When this, too, had no effect, Matt made an appointment to see his oncologist to schedule a CT scan of his head.
The results showed a mass in his sinus cavity. A biopsy confirmed that the leiomyosarcoma was back. In fact, the mass in Matt’s face was likely the cancer’s primary location even prior to the discovery and removal of the mass from his hip in 2009. Upon his diagnosis, Matt began to research available treatments.
At the end of September 2010, after many man-hours donated by family and friends to researching the spectrum of cancer treatments available -from cutting-edge Western medicines to progressive holistic alternatives- Matt departed to Sanoviv Medical Institute in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. The hefty fee for the private hospital was generously covered by a close family friend from the past.
While at Sanoviv, Matt received various forms of electromagnetic therapy, ozone therapy, lymphatic drainage, bio-chemotherapy, and dendritic cell therapy. He worked with a team of doctors to detoxify his system. He had a full schedule of appointments each day that he diligently attended, and he focused on healing himself.
When Matt returned from Mexico, his system rebelled. Feeling nauseous and with increasing pressure in his head and nose, Matt went for diagnostic scans. The scans showed that the main mass in his sinuses had increased in size, as had the metastasized tumors in his lungs, and a tumor had recurred in his hip. With a cancer so advanced and aggressive, Matt’s 5 weeks of treatments at Sanoviv were unable to make their intended impact.
The day before Thanksgiving last year, Matt started an 8 week course of general radiation treatment. He received treatment 5 days a week. The skin on his face turned red, burned from the inside out as a side-effect. The pain in his head necessitated that he take significant dose of morphine to get through the day. His body was greatly fatigued by the treatments, and his sleep was inconsistent with only brief periods of rest. At the end of 8 weeks, Matt was told that together with the radiation he received as a child, in total, he received the maximum amount of radiation possible for his lifetime.
Just 2 short weeks after the completion of his radiation course, Matt began Insulin Potentiated Chemotherapy (IPT or lo-dose chemo) in Oceanside, CA near San Diego. With rides provided by various family members & friends, Matt made the 90-mile trip once a week to receive treatment. The method of administration used in IPT is considered alternative to standardized Western medicine, and thus, Matt’s government issued health insurance did not cover the weekly cost of $2,000.
Diagnostic scans taken in April 2011 showed about 1/3 of the main mass’ cells were inactive and without blood-flow. It was unclear at the time whether it was the residual effects of the radiation treatment responsible for the good news, or if it was the IPT Chemo. Regardless, the treatments appeared to be working. Matt felt hopeful, and began taking steps to schedule a de-bulking surgery to relieve some of the pressure in his head and clear his nasal passage to facilitate his breathing.
Matt’s surgery took place in late June 2011 at UC Irvine over 2 days. First, Matt had an embolization procedure to cut off the blood flow to the tumor. The following day, Matt’s surgeon went in through his nostril to cut out as much of the tumor as he could safely. Matt’s 2-day stay in the hospital was very difficult, and a pain management team conferred constantly in an effort to minimize Matt’s agony after the back-to-back invasive procedures. The surgeon was able to remove 30% of the main mass in Matt’s sinuses. His airway was cleared, but the damage done to his olfactory system was irreparable, and Matt’s sense of smell and taste were lost as a result. With his pain medication regimen worked out, Matt went home to rest and recover.
During a follow-up visit with the surgeon, Matt learned that the diagnostic scans taken just before his surgery indicated that the mass in his sinuses had grown slightly since those taken previously in April 2011. The IPT Chemo was unable to keep up with and effectively reduce the aggressive tumor. Matt’s surgeon did not provide a positive prognosis, offering to help manage Matt’s pain using various cocktails and increasing doses of narcotics and providing the phone numbers for in-home care nurses. Matt did not accept this terminal prognosis.
An email from a relative recalled an option that had come up in previous research efforts, but was not explored, the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, Texas. Matt and his family worked quickly to make contact, sending his complete medical file for review, and fundraising for the hefty fees levied by the private out-patient clinic. Within a week, Matt was road-tripping across the country with his mom and sister to get to Houston. The tumor’s location at the base of his brainstem made a flight too risky for Matt. After a 3-day journey, the family met with Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, MD PhD and his team, which included both a leading research doctor and oncologist.
Dr. Burzynski’s team has provided hope to Matt, designing a unique treatment protocol based on his type of cancer, his medical history, and the treatments rendered up to this point. He has started taking Sodium Phenylbutrate (PB) and Votrient to inhibit tumor growth. When the results of a genetic test are returned from a specialty lab in Arizona, additional targeted therapies will be prescribed. In the meantime, Matt has started on a course of chemotherapy- less gentler than the IPT, but a moderate dose to be bolstered by his existing medications.
Diagnostic scans taken upon his arrival in Houston, show that Matt’s tumor in his sinuses is not growing rapidly at this time. The oncologist at the Burzynski Clinic believes that Matt will tolerate the chemo well, and that this treatment is essential to making the most of the period of slow-growth. The family will remain in Houston for a few more weeks during the 3 week chemo course, and waiting for the remaining targeted therapies to be assigned. Fundraising efforts are continuous and essential to the pursuit of treatment both while in Texas, and after Matt’s discharge.
Matt is very much aware that the odds are not in his favor, and still he continues his quest for wellness. Having endured and overcome so many medical challenges already in just 34 years, it’s almost unbelievable that he is now walking the thin line between life and death. Despite his body’s weakened state, Matt’s resolve to pursue life is strong.
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