Muleshoe’s Alarcon ‘wins race,’ overcomes cancerwebmaster September 20, 2019 0 COMMENTS
By Alexis Cubit
MULESHOE — Matthew Alarcon pushed off the couch inside his Muleshoe home.
The high school senior meandered through a small hallway until he reached his room.
When he opened the door, Alarcon found a pair of his No. 3 football jerseys, both encased inside a shadow box. One had been autographed by each of his Mules football teammates.
Alarcon was unable to attend most high school football games last year. But when he did, the Muleshoe native was a fixture on the sidelines as he rolled along in a black wheelchair. Alarcon viewed every first down as motivation to rejoin the squad after he recorded 149 yards as a kick return specialist during his sophomore campaign.
Even though his football days are over, the senior is out of the wheelchair and has a new love for life after a horrific year of fighting brain cancer.
Alarcon was a carefree sophomore who served in any role necessary for Muleshoe under the Friday night lights.
He suffered a torn ACL during the last game of the 2017 season, a small injury compared to the year Alarcon would endure.
Even after a tedious amount of rehab to his ACL, Alarcon still had to pass one more test before being cleared to play sports again.
To celebrate the pending good news, Alarcon’s parents, Rhea Gonzales and Rick Alarcon, took their son to Academy on Friday, April 27, 2018, to buy new athletic gear when Matthew started to experience blurred vision.
None of the three thought much of it, chalking it up to allergies, but when it persisted three days later, they went to a doctor.
Matthew’s parents were puzzled when his physician referred the family the same day in Lubbock to an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who specializes in eye and vision care.
Neither Matthew nor his parents were prepared for what the MRI revealed when it scanned his head.
“That day, we found out he had a brain tumor,” Gonzales said. “It was kind of a roller coaster from then on.”
Matthew Alarcon added, “I really didn’t think it would be that bad, but I hear stuff and I was like, ‘Dang, this kind of sucks.’ I just teared up and kind of cried.”
Fighting for his life
Matthew Alarcon, only 15 at the time, attended prom before beginning chemotherapy less than a month after the diagnosis at University Medical Center.
Due to the treatment, Matthew’s physical therapy for his ACL came to a halt.
“It still kind of hurts a little,” the now 17-year-old said.
The tumor was located near Matthew’s pineal region of the brain stem. It continued to grow and stopped the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, a watery, colorless substance, from the brain to the spinal cord. The blockage also caused a buildup of CSF, also known as hydrocephalus.
To treat it, doctors performed an emergency endoscopic third ventriculostomy on May 15, 2018. ETV surgery is a procedure offered to children and adults that essentially drains the cerebrospinal fluid into other areas of the brain. It’s proven to be more effective at treating hydrocephalus than the use of shunts.
Right after the surgery, Matthew restarted chemotherapy and spent a week in the hospital.
No sooner than Matthew cleared that hurdle, the tumor grew again. This time, though, the surgery proved almost fatal.
In the process of debulking, or the removing of the tumor, Matthew suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that caused him to slip into a coma for two weeks.
He had already been put on steroids as part of his chemotherapy. In a matter of months, he gained more than 40 pounds — going from 145 to 186 pounds — in addition to being rendered immobile and unconscious.
At that point, doctors gave Gonzales and Rick Alarcon an option to do a third surgery, to which Gonzales responded instead with prayer.
“You either have faith and believe in God or you don’t,” Gonzales said. “Without really the community’s support — not only prayers, financially, just coming to visit — it would have been really difficult for us to make it through. That was a big help. Prayers are No. 1.”
Matthew’s parents’ faith was tested, but came through when Matthew woke up. Overcoming the coma was one thing, but hallucinations a month later was another.
“It was one where it was like a dream that I was ripping out my IVs and stuff. In real life, I really was,” Matthew said, which required him to be strapped down. “Two of them, I hallucinated that I died and I woke up and asked them if I died. They said no.”
The negatives from his second surgery not only included Matthew changing physically, but they also affected his father.
“They had said that they were going in there to get 80 percent of his tumor out. …There’s still some in there and it grows like nothing,” Rick said. “A couple of weeks later, he never really got out of it. He had to be on machines to breathe and he couldn’t eat. That was super hard, not knowing what was going to happen.”
So, instead of being unclear, Rick and Gonzales elected to take their son to David Sandberg, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Mischer Neuroscience Institute in Houston, to remove the final 20 percent.
The successful procedure allowed Matthew to take the next step in treatment: proton radiation scheduled Dec. 4 in Irving.
And 17 days into the New Year, Matthew got to ring the gong to signal the end of his radiation. Four months later, he rung the bell. Matthew was cancer-free.
Throughout the process, Matthew relied on his own faith and continuously read Philippians 4:13.
“I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,” he said. “I prayed every night, hoping I would get better every day. I still do and He’s showing me that He’s getting me better.”
Faith and community
While being away from the Mules football team, Matthew Alarcon found the unlikeliest of teammates with each hospital visit.
“I had this one nurse named Dusty and he would throw (football) passes with me in the hospital room,” Matthew said of his time at UMC. “He was the best one there.”
His stay at Trust Point allowed him to mix food and fun as Matthew’s occupational therapist would make jalapeno poppers with him to help with his coordination. Even within his hometown, the teenager found inspiration for his future through working with the physical therapists at Muleshoe Physical Therapy.
“They convinced me to go to college, because I didn’t know what I wanted to go for, and now I want to go and be a physical therapy assistant and probably work with them,” Matthew said. “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.”
Through every doctor and hospital visit, Matthew kept up with his schoolwork and passed his STARR test this spring — Matthew proclaimed with a grin from ear to ear — and is on track to graduate high school this school year before beginning his career trek.
And through all of his suffering, Matthew still managed to make his way onto the football field last season.
At the start of the 2018 season, like a many high school football teams, Muleshoe set out to claim a District 2-3A Division I title, then make a deep postseason run capped off by holding a state title trophy.
While all three of those objectives may not have been achieved, the Mules secured one of their most important victories of the season against their biggest rivals.
The scoreboard will say Littlefield defeated Muleshoe 42-7 in the almost 90-year-old War on 84. But there were far more important numbers shared after the game.
In a show of solidarity, the Littlefield booster club handed Matthew a check for $2,000 to help with medical expenses.
“Do it for 3” was the rallying cry for the Mules during the 2018 football season, which ended with three victories. The greatest triumph for the Muleshoe players, though, was hearing their teammate was cancer-free.
This fall, Matthew will be back on the sideline. He won’t be playing, but he also won’t be in a wheelchair. Mules coach Lee Walker and the coaching staff gave Matthew a job as a student coach while he still retains his No. 3 jersey.
Finishing the race
Matthew Alarcon has always been a driven young man. Gonzales recalls her son learning to walk at eight months and didn’t slow down after that until his diagnosis.
After an unexpected year, Matthew is getting back to himself and has been improving his mile time over the last few months. In a matter of a day, he took a minute off his time during the summer.
On a cool evening in August, Rick and Gonzales joined Matthew for a jog in Muleshoe. Every stride Matthew took represented an obstacle he’d overcome: cancer, surgeries, pneumonia, a coma, rehab.
And for the first time in over a year, he won the race.
“Never give up,” Matthew said. “Just keep fighting.”
Brad Tollefson/A-J Media
Matthew Alarcon (center) is now cancer-free after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2018. He’s pictured with his parents Rhea Gonzalez and Rick Alarcon after an interview on Aug. 2 at their home ion Muleshoe.