Life Advice From Matt Paolelli

Medill School of Journalism, Adjunct Professor

By Orko Manna

Photo by Mia Zanzucchi

First, I would say don't ask a 32­-year­-old for life advice.

I think the biggest thing I learned from having cancer was that everybody has cancer of some sort. So maybe it's not actually cancer, but everyone is dealing with something. And it feels really good when the people in your life – and even complete strangers sometimes – reach out to ask how you're doing, or to encourage you, or to share their experience of what they were dealing with. So I think for me, that was the biggest lesson. My biggest takeaway is that it's very easy for someone to take five minutes to send a Facebook message and ask how you're doing, or to send a Gchat and ask how you're feeling today – and it's something I wasn't good at doing myself before I was sick, but it meant so much to me when people did that when I was sick. And now it's something I strive for in my own life – to check in with people, even if I don't know that something is wrong. But if I do know that something's wrong, then to try to be as engaged as possible with them.


I think it was a test of faith for me. I'm Catholic and I'm pretty religious, and there's sort of definitely the Why­-Me aspect, the What­-Did­-I­-Do­-To-­Deserve­-This kind of thing. But I think pretty quickly ­ because of the people in my life and because of how my wife and I chose to kind of be public with my cancer fight and I was blogging about my experience and sharing it with whoever was interested. It showed me that this is all part of a larger plan, and that something that was seemingly so negative in my life could actually be a positive in my life, and in the lives of those around me. Part of the reason is that I could make the experience easier for people who were dealing with similar situations.

Having to stop teaching was one of the hardest parts about the diagnosis. I think it was the second or third week of winter quarter when I realized the chemo was going to make it impossible for me to keep teaching. One of the hardest parts of the experience was having to tell a lab full of 15 freshman that you have cancer, and then watching their mouths just fall open. One of them was even tearing up. And then I was starting to tear up. It was hard for me to give up.


My wife Theresa and I started referring to the lump in my neck as "lumpy." When I first posted on Facebook that I was going to be undergoing treatment, one of my friends commented, "Down with Lumpy." To me, that sounded like a good rallying cry. So I started using that with all my blog posts, and my wife ­on my first day of chemotherapy, unbeknownst to me told a lot of people that I knew and didn't know to post on social media a message of support, using the hashtag, #DownWithLumpy. So what would have been a really scary day, my first day of chemo, was actually one of the best days of my life because all my friends, my family, complete strangers, President Schapiro, Coach Fitz ­ all these people were posting on social media. Literally I remember waking up the day of my first chemo and looking at my phone like I do every morning and checking Facebook and seeing that my entire newsfeed was about me, and it was all Down With Lumpy posts, and all the support from all these people. I almost tear up just thinking about it. It was so cool to have that support. The outpouring of support was tremendous. And I have my wife ­– and all my friends and family ­– to thank for that.


The best part about being done with chemo is that my eyebrows grew back, so I stopped looking insane in photographs. Everyone has welcomed me back into all aspects of my life with open arms. Northwestern is no exception to that. I told my students about the experience, because I feel like it's part of my identity now. That's not something I would have expected at my age, but I am proud to be a cancer survivor, I'm proud to count myself among those currently fighting it, those who have fought. I didn't succumb to it. I feel like I'm in a very privileged and honorable group there.

As bad as the experience was, I can't think of it as a negative thing in my mind when I look back, just because now I'm a cancer survivor. I feel lucky that the word "cure" could be used in the same sentence as cancer in my case.