Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office, with your pregnant wife, and you hear this.
And not just any cancer. Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. A rare form of blood cancer that remains in the body as long as someone with it lives.
“You might not make it to the birth of your daughter,” the doctor says.
Imagine how difficult it would be to receive that news.
For Matt Simms, it wasn’t an imagination. It was his reality.
That was October 2014. Over four years later after he received the initial cancer diagnosis, Simms is still pushing strong. His daughter, Molly, is now three-and-a-half years old. His other daughter, Ruby, is six years old.
Being diagnosed with cancer was a life changing moment for Simms, but it hasn’t stopped him from living his life to the fullest.
I’m living on borrowed time. I just want to make the best of every day.”
And that he is.
At 39 years old, Simms is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business at Doane University, taking classes on the College of Professional Studies’ Lincoln campus. He is classified as a nontraditional student -- and while his path to earning a diploma isn’t “typical,” it is something many active military members and veterans can relate to.
After graduating from Norris High School in 1997, Simms joined the Army. He wanted to serve our country, but he also knew it would be a cost-effective way of attending college.
When he first enlisted in October of ’97, Simms started in data entry as an information systems management specialist. Five years later, he was deployed for 13 months to Jordan and Kuwait.
Simms worked his way up the ranks multiple times in the Army, doing administrative work, providing support in supply and training, served as air traffic control for helicopters in Iraq for one year, and then eventually got a series of promotions working office jobs in Kearney, Lincoln, Scottsbluff, and back in Lincoln.
Simms’ most recent position in the military was serving as the sexual assault response coordinator and domestic violence coordinator for the Nebraska Military department. He reported to one person in the military who reported to the governor. His job was to train victim advocates, unit commanders, soldiers, and civilians on how to recognize signs of domestic violence and sexual assault and how to do peer-to-peer counseling.
Simms traveled the state, speaking with sexual assault nurses in hospitals, ER staffs, and local law enforcement officials to be as educated as possible.
After rising up the ranks and serving in the Army for 20 years, the cancer diagnosis forced him to be removed from the military.
“It was surreal news,” he says. “I felt like I was making a difference in people’s lives. I had surpassed all of my goals in the military, I went farther than I had dreamt I would ever go. To hear that your body is failing you -- when I never had a cigarette or done drugs, I was healthy enough and active -- it was devastating.”
At the time, over half of his life was spent in the military. All of his friends were people in the military. It was all that he knew.
After going through the initial shock of finding out this life changing, and potentially life-ending news, Simms knew he wanted to do everything he could to be the best role model he could be for his two daughters. For him, one of his priorities meant returning to school.
“If I were to pass away, I wanted my wife to be able to tell my children that your father with cancer could finish school,” he says. “You can fight through this cold or your boredom with class, or whatever it may be, you can finish it. I wanted to be a good example for them.”
Now in his fifth term at Doane, Simms is currently taking two classes. After this term, he will just have five classes remaining to complete his bachelor’s degree after bringing in some transfer credits he previously earned.
“That’s the best part of the Doane schedule -- is it’s only two nights a week of class,” Simms says. “That leaves five nights for me to spend with my family.” Make no mistake, though. This journey of returning to school hasn’t always been easy.
For the first few years of living with leukemia, Simms had responded well to a daily chemotherapy drug (in pill form) that he is able to take. But in July and November, Simms’ checkup tests were not good. He had the largest negative spike to date, forcing him to receive tests every two weeks to monitor how his body is reacting.
The day he received bad news about his tests in November, he had class that night. He still elected to go, but found it difficult to hide his emotions. Prior to this moment, adjunct faculty member Keri Appleby had not known of Simms’ cancer diagnosis. It was something he kept relatively private. But she could sense something was wrong, and told the class to take a break while she visited with Matt.
“Before I knew he was sick I was impressed with his character,” she says. “My first impression was that he’s a guy who has an amazing heart. Once I realized he was sick that just affirmed my thoughts. Talk about a positive attitude and perseverance -- that is Matt.”
Angie Klasek, executive campus director of Doane’s Lincoln campus, says she has tremendous admiration and respect for Simms.
Matt’s determination speaks volumes for the person he is. Wanting to look forward is incredibly important for him. Goals are important for everyone, but so important for those who are facing that kind of adversity. It’s representative of the outlook he has on life -- he is going to do everything he can to continually be learning.”
As Simms continues to battle cancer, he counts his blessings, and his positive attitude is infectious. At his current pace, he is on track to complete his degree at the end of the year.
When that time comes though, he won’t be completely satisfied. “I’m already considering what master’s programs would interest me,” he says.
“There’s no sense in giving up. Let’s do the best we can while we still can.”