HARRISVILLE, Weber County — "Is your music an iTunes download?" "Will you sign my backpack?" "You're amazing!"
Students at Harrisville's Orion Junior High School first gave a guest performer a standing ovation during a recent assembly, then swarmed him afterward.
No, it wasn't an "American Idol" contestant but someone even better.
Matt Pond, 38, learned he had brain cancer in May of 2006. He remembers thinking, "Cancer? You don't understand. … I'm going to school, have a family, I'm working and I don't have time for cancer. Maybe in 30 years or so I'll be ready for it, but right now, I don't have time for this."
Almost three years and three surgeries later, after enduring rigorous chemotherapy and radiation regimes, losing his motor skills and reasoning (he had to learn to walk, talk, write and drive again) the vision in his right eye (which he's since regained), and going through a divorce, Pond is still grateful for his cancer.
He gives back by performing his "If I Only Had a Brain" show at school assemblies, youth conferences and firesides in Utah and Idaho and by serving on the Huntsman Cancer Institute's Patient Education Steering Committee in Salt Lake City. His message is relayed through a combination of storytelling, singing, guitar playing, pictures, jokes and humor.
"This is life and we're going to have good and bad days, but regardless, be the very best you can and do the very best you can," he tells students and anyone else who will listen.
Pond, the second youngest of 14 children, was raised in Idaho Falls, and is from a tightly knit musical family. He and his siblings performed in Michael McLean's Forgotten Carols. His oldest brother, Ron, died in 1992 at age 42 from bone cancer three months after being diagnosed. He left a wife and six children. (His youngest was just 5 months old.)
Fourteen years later, it was Matt Pond's turn to battle cancer.
Pond was your typical father of three, a master woodworker who likes to play basketball, write songs and perform in music theater — that is until he started having to sit down for a couple of minutes here and there and after discovering that big words would come to his mind, but weren't coming out of his mouth.
"I was like, 'Man, what is this?' "
Simply thinking he was overworking himself, Pond continued attending night classes at Boise State to finish his degree, putting down wood floors and jumping on the trampoline with his boys.
But when symptoms — lightheadedness, forgetting things, having to take breaks and sit down all of the time, wanting to voice thoughts that were coming to mind but not being able to and not being able to breathe — began occurring daily, Pond knew there was something seriously wrong.
"It scared me like crazy."
After two surgeries, Pond's doctors told him to kiss his kids goodbye; there was nothing more they could do.
Hearing that, Pond said, "If this is what the Lord has in store from me, I'll do it, but I still prayed like crazy."
If being diagnosed with brain cancer and told he was going to die wasn't enough, Pond said his wife kicked him out of their house and they have since divorced. He began preparing for his funeral services, but his large family wasn't quite ready to hear the fat lady sing.
Wanting a second opinion before they closed another music box, younger brother Mark Pond and other siblings took Matt to the Huntsman Cancer Institute where he met with neuro-oncologist Dr. Michael Glantz, who after looking at Pond's films said, "We can fix this."
"We just bawled," Pond said. "Going from 'kiss your kids goodbye' to 'we can fix this' was truly a miracle and news that was indeed welcomed."
Sister Jane Dame recalls, "The first thing Matt tried to do (after his third surgery) was to quickly recite a family tradition of saying all 14 children's names: Ron, Dennis, Leda, Dana, Geoff, Emilie, Marietta, Becky, Rachel, Jane, Cami, Patty, Matt, Mark."
Frequently throughout his treatment, Pond would reassure his family, "It's all coming around, it's all good. The Lord's in charge," said brother Geoff Pond.
"He would tell us everything will work out. He was the one who would say to us 'don't worry,' " said sister Rachel Wilson.
Sue Childress, director of Nursing Services and co-director of the Patient Education Steering Committee at the Huntsman institute, said, "Matt has certainly changed the dynamics of the committee; not only to have his realistic input on what we should be saying to our patients in patient education, but his humor and humanity that he brings is very positive."
Pond works daily on strengthening his cognitive skills by reading and studying as much as he can in addition to attending physical therapy and strengthening his "If I Only Had a Brain" performance. And like other cancer patients who finish treatment and are stable but still under surveillance, Pond visits Glantz every three months for a routine MRI.
"We're excited about him being able to move on and having a bright future," Geoff Pond said.
He even got his driver's license back and now drives others instead of the other way around. And when he sees his three boys he says he cherishes every minute.
"I love my boys," he said. "Every time I get to spend with them is a blessing and we don't have to go and do fancy things; we are just happy to be together."
Pond has a goal to raise his boys and help them and anyone who may be struggling with anything. "I think I've had this trial to help others. I will tell them (my boys) that everyone has trials and for some reason. This was mine."
Wilson said this experience has "helped us to want to do more for the community and others in the same situation."
After Pond's performance at Orion Junior High, "A little seventh-grader came up to him crying saying, 'My uncle just died of cancer, I don't know what kind of cancer he had, but I'm so glad to see there is a survivor,' " Dame recounted.
Pond hopes to continue reaching out to others. "The fastest way to get better is by helping others," he said.
"You know, when we were all up in heaven, and people were told what they were going to get, and I was told, 'You're going to get a brain tumor' I'm sure I said, 'Sweet, let's make the best of this.' "
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