Matt Hilliard was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Photo by David Grace.
If he had a do-over in life, Matt Hilliard wouldn’t change a thing, even if it meant a stage IV cancer diagnosis on the same day his best friend died. Even if it meant he would lose the ability to speak and would have to teach himself to speak again.
He would do it all over again, he says, because he’s learned more about himself since that day in July 2012 than in all the years prior to that.
Hilliard grew up the son of a smoker, sneaking cigarettes from his father from the time he was 12 or 13 years old. He smoked for 40 years and didn’t give up the habit until months after his stage IV lung cancer diagnosis. He knew the cancer had started in his left lung and spread to his lymph nodes, bone marrow and the nerves going to his vocal cords. But it wasn’t until the cancer spread to his right lung in December 2012 that he gave it up.
“It’s an addiction. I liked it. I enjoyed smoking. I could light another cigarette in a heartbeat,” he said.
After his diagnosis, Hilliard, a former truck driver, sought a second opinion from specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Those doctors told him that his type of cancer might not be caused by cigarettes, but Hilliard believes it’s likely.
“I don’t know, but I do know in my heart that cigarettes didn’t help,” he said.
Hilliard’s journey toward a cancer diagnosis began last summer, when he lost his voice. Doctors found a mass at the top of his left lung, told him his cancer had already spread and was inoperable and incurable. “I just sat there and I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’” he said.
Leaving the doctor’s office, he headed to the hospital where his best friend was being removed from life support. Hilliard held his friend’s power of attorney and was responsible for planning the funeral. Still, he found the strength to carry on.
“I think God stirred in my life again, and I just started moving forward,” he said. “It had to be God. I don’t know what else it could be. ... Somebody bigger than me was leading me.”
Hilliard has had 84 radiation treatments and chemotherapy at least twice a month since July 2012. He’s still taking chemotherapy in the hopes that it’s keeping the cancer at bay.
“There’s no cure. There’s always hope to go into remission, but it’s not likely and it will come back,” he said.
He’s lost weight and lost his hair. He sleeps a lot and stays tired and run down. Still, he’s choosing to live his life to the fullest, keeping his sense of humor and trying hard to make other people smile. He attends Providence Church in Church Hill, where he was recently baptized with his yellow rubber duck. He handed out candy to patients at Kingsport Hematology Oncology before he took his treatment on Halloween. He also attends a cancer support group.
He chooses not to preach to others about the dangers of smoking.
“People know. They know cigarettes are not good for them. I know it. ... Something has got to happen for them to quit,” he said. “That day last year, my life as I knew it changed completely. I had no symptoms except the loss of my voice.”
It’s been a journey of self-discovery, and Hilliard is at peace.
“I would choose cancer again just for the chance to learn about myself,” he said.
The American Cancer Society marks the Great American Smokeout on the third Thursday of November each year by encouraging smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit, or to plan in advance and quit smoking that day. By quitting, even for one day, smokers will be taking an important step towards a healthier life — one that can lead to reducing cancer risk.
Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the U.S., yet about 43.8 million Americans (nearly one in five adults) still smoke cigarettes. As of 2010, there were also 13.2 million cigar smokers in the United States and 2.2 million who smoke tobacco in pipes.
Quitting is hard, but you can increase your chances of success with help. To learn more about quitting smoking, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.