Steamboat man earns PhD from Mines two decades after surviving cancer
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There was a time when Matt Hayne wondered if he would ever get the chance to go to college, walk across the stage in his cap and gown and accept a diploma.
“It was definitely a scary day,” Hayne said of the day a doctor diagnosed him with cancer. “I think I was more scared of the unknown as a high school student, not really knowing what it was going to entail.”
For Hayne, the news meant months of chemotherapy, missed classes and a long road of recovery. The good news is, 19 years later, Hayne has accepted not just one, but several, college diplomas.
Hayne grew up in South Routt and was excelling as a student at Soroco High School when cancer entered his life. During his sophomore year, without his knowledge, cancer had started to take its toll on the 16-year-old. He started to notice it while competing at the 1999 Colorado High School State Track and Field Championships.
“I would get really tired, and I was not really doing well in my events,” Hayne said. “All that summer, I just kind of felt really fatigued. Then I started getting stomach ulcers and paralysis on the left side of my face, and that is what ultimately led to getting a bunch of tests done by the doctors and figuring it out.”
Those tests uncovered the fact that Hayne was suffering from Burkitt’s lymphoma. His junior year was filled with doctor’s visits, tests and rounds of chemotherapy that left him physically depleted, emotionally drained and bald.
“In hindsight, I think it kind of gave me a lot more perspective on life in general,” Hayne said. “I knew what was important and what was not important. At the time, I remember being bummed and upset. I felt like cancer kind of stole something from me.”
But while it may have slowed him down, cancer could not keep Hayne down.
He continued to compete in sports, even when he was bald and dealing with the side effects of treatments. Despite what many would consider setbacks, Hayne lettered in four sports, was on the school’s honor roll and student council. He was also a cadet commander in the Civil Air Patrol.
Looking back, he is humble and said he owes it all to the understanding he got from the teachers who supported him. He also credits his parents, Ed and Kate, both teachers, who helped him catch up in the class when he was falling behind.
By the time Hayne reached his senior year of high school, it looked like he had left cancer in the rearview mirror. He graduated in the spring of 2001 with a 3.89 grade point average and went on to the Colorado School of Mines, where he began an 18-year-long journey that earned him an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a master’s degree in metallurgy and material science. And on Dec. 13, he strolled across the Mines stage to receive his Ph.D.
Hayne said his cancer journey drove him to excel in the classroom and find ways to give back. He did that through First Descents, a program that provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer, and Camp Koru, a camp to help cancer survivors find healing and renewal through outdoor experiences in the ocean and mountains.
“I feel like it’s given me a really good perspective and really neat insight into being able to help out with a bunch of programs,” Hayne said. “I think I ended up doing like 20 to 25 camps — somewhere in that ballpark.”
Hayne also met his wife, Emily, through First Descents. She is also a cancer survivor, and the two were married in June.
But while Hayne uses his first battle against cancer to gain perspective and fuel his the desire to make the most of every day, he knows the fight is never over. In 2017, he was back in the fight after a dentist discovered a tumor in his jaw. Hayne’s cancer, which not related to the Burkitt’s lymphoma, was discovered early, and after surgery to remove the tumor and several rounds of radiation, he is once again cancer free.
Hayne has landed a post-doctorate position at the Los Alamos National Lab, and he remains an avid athlete after competing in track at Colorado School of Mines. He’s competed in the Ragnar Relay, the New York City Marathon and the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race, twice.
“I can remember doing the Leadville 100 and looking over and feeling kind of bad for the person next to me because I could see the suffering on his face,” Hayne said. “I was thinking, ‘Hey, you’re probably having one of your worst days ever, but for me, this isn’t that bad.’ I’ve gone through worse, and I think that mentality having that perspective of like, “This is tough, and yes, it sucks right now, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever been through.’”
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