New dad celebrates a year cancer-free, after intense treatment for leukemia

Many people in their 30s experience the same exciting life milestones Matt Mazzer has: getting engaged, planning a wedding, advancing at work, buying a home, starting a family. But for Matt, the stress of the past few years has been even more heightened, as he experienced all of these life milestones while undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

In February 2021, in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matt started experiencing shortness of breath and fatigue with his normal daily movements—taking his dog, Rubin, for walks, and going up and down the stairs. “Every day I started to lag behind more,” he recalls, remembering how his symptoms escalated quickly. “I figured it was COVID, but I kept testing negative.”

Matt ended up in the Emergency Room, where they thought he had a pulmonary embolism in his lung. After a full PET scan, the doctors found a five-inch tumor in his chest. They told him and his fiancé, Aleah, it was likely cancerous and sent him home for an agonizing wait while they confirmed the diagnosis.

“We got the call a few days later that it was ALL and that we needed to head to Dana-Farber within a few hours,” Matt says. “One day I was healthy walking my dog, the next day I wasn’t.”

Matt was admitted for a month of intensive treatment, led by his oncologist, Richard Stone, MD, chief of staff and director of Translational Research in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Adult Leukemia Program and the Lunder Family Chair in Leukemia, and his nurse practitioner, Ilene Galinsky, BSN, MSN, ANP-C. Due to COVID-19 precautions, he endured most of this month alone, recalling how important the care team was to both his mental and physical health, and to keeping him connected to Aleah and his family at home in Pittsfield, Mass., through phone and video calls.

“It was very difficult. I went in looking like myself and came out a month later looking 20-30 pounds lighter with no hair on my body,” Matt reflects. “My oncology team was so thoughtful and caring. As bad as it was, they made it as good as it could be.”

After his initial treatment, Matt spent a few weeks at home before another “hell week,” as he calls it, back in treatment with a high-dose, intensive chemo. After he was sent home, he started experiencing some concerning neurological side effects, where he was having trouble speaking and sleeping. “It was like I was trapped inside my own head,” he recalls. “I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say it. Unfortunately, this occurred multiple times throughout 2021.”

Matt’s oncology team helped manage these side effects, while maintaining treatment of his cancer, which included chemotherapy and a high-dose steroid regimen twice a week for the first year, then tapering to chemo once a week. As his treatment went on, Matt’s side effects improved—and so did his cancer. For the last six months of treatment, he was able to be treated in his hometown, still under the direction of Stone and his Dana-Farber team.

Meanwhile, Matt still had a life to live. He and Aleah decided to get married in a small ceremony in September 2022. “When I got sick, we decided one day to do it pretty soon, since we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “We found a really pretty spot in the Berkshires overlooking the lake and had about 20 people. It was beautiful.”

After their wedding, with Matt’s condition improving and treatment decreasing to weekly chemo, they decided to try for a baby. Due to his intense treatment, Matt, Aleah, and his care team had decided to bank his sperm prior to the start of treatment. They started IVF in July 2022, which included many more trips to Boston, and unfortunately were not successful in the first few rounds.

“We were on our third round and were going to have to drive to Boston on Christmas Eve. We started our drive but decided to put it off and enjoy the holidays,” Matt says, recalling how stressful the time had been between treatment, IVF, and the holidays. Against the odds, the couple ended up conceiving naturally over the holidays—they found out they were pregnant in January, coincidentally the same week as they closed on a new house.

With the promise of a new member of the family and a new home, and Matt’s treatments becoming more manageable, 2023 was looking like the best year in a while. And in April 2023, it only got better: Matt was declared cancer-free, after more than two years of intense treatment. To celebrate, he and Aleah, then 8-months pregnant, joined the Jimmy Fund community at Fenway Park in August to share their experience as part of the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon presented by Arbella Insurance, encouraging Jimmy Fund supporters and Red Sox Nation to donate in support of Dana-Farber’s mission. Matt even got to step onto the field to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

“It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “I’ve had a difficult couple of years and being at Fenway with the Dana-Farber and Jimmy Fund community was amazing, the culmination of my treatment experience.”

Now a new dad to Sophia, born September 22, 2023, and nearly a year cancer-free, Matt has a new perspective on life and was thrilled to start 2024 with a clean bill of health and a new addition to the family.

“I’m so much more invested in my family and the little things than I was before,” he says. “I love being a dad: It’s by far my favorite thing ever. It’s just so much fun being a husband and a father. I don’t want to waste time on things that aren’t important. We are taking the time we have and just enjoying it.”

Donate for every Red Sox win in the 2024 season and help strike out cancer for patients like Matt. Our friends at DraftKings will match each donation, up to $25,000!

Your donations also support The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.