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Defying the Odds: Matt Klutka Has the Will to Survive

A terminal cancer diagnosis couldn’t keep this warrior out of the gym.

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UPDATE: Matt Klutka defied all odds by fighting a rare form of cancer in the gym—and along the way, inspired everyone around him. He has passed away, but his legacy lives on

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If you only had a few weeks to live, how would you spend your time? It’s the hypothetical question that trumps all others and most guys answer it the same way: They’d make peace with their loved ones, and then they’d go out with a bang. Vegas is usually mentioned. So is booze. Maybe an outrageous diet of pancakes and bacon like Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day. Forget exercising and healthy eating. After all, you can’t take fitness with you, right?

But in so many ways, Matt Klutka isn’t most guys. He’s facing that very question now, and not as a hypothetical. In August of this year, doctors gave Matt just a few weeks to live. Since December of 2013, Matt has been battling a rare form of cancer—leiomyosarcoma—that began in a vein near his heart, and spread to his liver and lungs. Multiple surgeries have weakened him. Chemotherapy has made him sick. And despite some success in his treatments, the cancer has come back each time.

Nevertheless, nearly every day—and even on his worst days—the 36 year-old is training, either in his basement gym or the local place near his home in Patterson, PA. If old habits die hard, Klutka gives new meaning to the old adage. He’s an avid weightlifter, distance runner, and snowboarder—with a lean, muscular physique to match. Even as chemotherapy sent him running to the toilet to puke, you couldn’t keep him away from the weights.

“It’s the will to survive,” Matt says when asked why he’s still training. “To be here for my son. Eating clean and working out—the only thing it can do is prolong my life.”

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The trouble started about two years ago. Though Klutka ran half marathons regularly and could breeze through a 5K in about 21 minutes, he noticed that his work capacity had suddenly diminished. His runs started to feel harder and short distances began to tax him. When his legs began to swell, he thought it might be a complication from old back injuries that he suffered while playing high school and college football. The issue came to a head one day when he could push his thumb nearly an inch into his shin.

“That’s how bad the swelling was,” Matt says. “A co-worker told me, ‘That usually only means one of two things—heart failure or kidney failure.’”

Matt was rushed to the hospital where doctors found heavy blood clotting and a large mass that had taken root in his inferior vena cava—the largest vein in the body that brings blood back to the heart from the lower extremities. Doctors initially believe it was a large clot, but a second opinion revealed that it was cancerous.

Matt immediately underwent aggressive chemotherapy in the hopes of shrinking the mass enough to remove it in a surgical procedure that carried a survival rate of only 30-50%. After a week and a half of constant headaches and vomiting from chemotherapy, he made a decision: If he was going to survive surgery, he needed to be in the shape of his life. He took himself off of bed rest and went down to the basement with one of his good friends, Mike Schlack. They devised circuits of 10-15 reps of every exercise with two minutes of jumping rope between each one. On chest day he’d bench, then do ring pushups, dumbbell flyes, and incline dumbbell press.

Matt would often get sick in the middle of the routines, run to the bathroom to vomit, then return to finish his set. Rather than lose weight and begin to appear sickly, he built himself up from about 190 pounds (a weight at which he could bench 405) to 205 in three months.

The major surgery in March of 2014 was successful—besides removing the mass, doctors also took his right kidney (which had died due to lack of blood flow), part of his intestine, and scraped his aorta and pancreas—but complications ensued. His body began leaking lymphatic fluid and he blew up to 260 pounds due to the fluid retention. Doctors needed to install a port in the side of his abdomen to drain the fluid—and keep it there for two months.

His long slog through the ringer continued: An unrelated surgery for his back issues followed, and he contracted a MRSA infection during the discectomy that paralyzed him for two months. Two more surgeries were required to fix the damage.

By the time he was back on his feet and training again in August 2014, a scan revealed a spot on his liver and several on his lungs. It meant more chemo and another surgery in November. By January of 2015, the spots were back yet again. This time, Matt was offered an experimental trial of a new cancer drug.

“They call it immunotherapy,” Matt says. “It teaches your immune system to fight the cancer cells and it had worked for other people. It didn’t work for me.”

Moreover, the experimental drugs destroyed his thyroid, the clots came back and new cancer formed in a vein close to his heart. When doctors discovered the new mass this past August, they told Matt he had just a few weeks to live.

“It’s very overwhelming when you get news like that,” Matt says. “The first thing I thought about was my family—my parents, my son, my girlfriend—how much I’m going to miss them. You think, ‘How could this be happening? I’ve worked so hard this whole time, how could it be getting worse?' Then you come back down to earth and put your faith in God. You just get back into your regular routine and have a will to live. I keep going with my diet. I’m still eating clean. I keep going with my workouts—even on days I don’t want to get up. I push myself to get up and do it. I feel pretty good right now. I have a little pain in my chest—it’s hard to breathe when I do cardio because I have tumors and clots in my lungs.

“But my thought is this: How much do the doctors really know? They can’t cure it, so how can they tell me I only have two weeks to live? I just don’t believe them. It’s already been a month and a half.”

In the face of immeasurable hardship—besides the pain, he’s been saddled with astronomical medical bills—Matt insists that the whole situation is a blessing.

“It’s put a lot of things in perspective for me,” Matt says. “The things I used to worry about or obsess over, I know they’re just meaningless. I wanted to make all this money and buy all these things. And now I realize all the most important things are right in front of me: My son, my mom, my dad, my girlfriend, my friends. Time is the most precious currency we have. You never know when your time is up. You have to take advantage of every moment you have with your friends and family and loved ones because that can be taken away in an instant. Everything else can be replaced.”

Matt has been forced to stop working as a sales representative for a plastics company—he was in line for a promotion to management before he got sick—and has since used any time that he’s not training or undergoing treatments to spend time with his 11-year-old son, Cebran, his parents Andrew and Kathy Klutka, and his girlfriend Chelsea Howe, whom he met through mutual friends and began dating in January of this year.

“She met me when I was sick and she still decided to date me,” Matt says. “I’ve got a great girlfriend. I’ve been blessed with a lot of amazing things in life.”

Friends will come to visit and check in on him. Some of them get pretty upset when they hear about his prognosis. Matt doesn’t cry with them. He tells them to knock it off. He’s continuing to defy the odds and has been able to maintain a level of strength in the gym that’s uncommon to most men, never mind cancer patients—just 4 months ago he hit 21 reps of a 225-pound bench (his all-time best is 33), and benched 315 pounds for three reps.

“I just tell people, ‘Hey, I’m still here. I still feel pretty good. There’s no reason to be upset. Let’s be happy and go do something fun,’” Matt says. “I try to motivate people and make them happy. There’s no reason to feel sorrow or feel bad for me. I’m doing the things that I want to do, and if it gets cut short, it gets cut short.”

Matt’s made a point to engage in every father-son bonding experience he can think of. He brings Cebran snowboarding and the two play a lot of Xbox and Playstation; Madden, Forza, and Halo are favorites. His main goal at this stage is to strengthen his bond with his son as much as possible and for Cebran to know how much he’s loved. To that end, he also trains with Cebran. He wants his son to remember that his dad was always a fighter, and every rep carries with it the hope and intention of being able to spend more time together.

“Training takes me to a place where I’m at peace. I can gather my thoughts,” Matt says. “I can reflect on things while I’m working out. It helps me work through everything. It’s a stress reliever. And it helps me feel like I’m still working toward surviving. I’ve never given up on anything, and I’m not going to start now.”

To help cover medical costs and provide for Matt’s son Cebran, you can donate to his GoFundMe page.

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