In part two of a series on men’s health, RIDE Media talks with a world champion who has recently been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Matthew Glaetzer recognises the significance of his news, but also believes he can still be competitive in his quest for gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s important, if something does seem out of the ordinary health-wise, to make sure you get it checked out because it might just save your life. That was the case for me.”
Matthew Glaetzer speaks with considerable calm, especially given news that was delivered to him in recent weeks. He felt a lump in his throat but didn’t think too much about it. Medical staff from the Australian Cycling Team looked into things a little further, insisted on some scans and that was when the diagnosis was made: he had thyroid cancer.
He recently underwent surgery to get a tumour – and his thyroid gland – removed but he’s back on the bike and confident of making a full recovery.
A day after a consultation with a specialist who will oversee his radiation therapy, he agreed to talk about the importance of listening to your body’s cues.
“I want to get that message out there especially with it being ‘Movember’ and men’s health awareness month,” he said at the end of the interview which you can read below. “You need to be aware of things and be prepared to take action if it’s required. It’s a good lesson to learn.”
RIDE Media: It’s a couple of weeks after Matthew Glaetzer discovered that he had thyroid cancer. It was almost a coincidental diagnosis but it has come early enough that he can still consider that he’s a candidate for the Tokyo Olympics. He’s speaking with RIDE Media after a consultation with a doctor yesterday to talk through what he’s learned about his condition and why he believes he can still be an Olympic sprinter, even though he’s being faced with a bit of news he wasn’t expecting.
Matthew, can you just give us a little overview of what happened at the doctor’s yesterday?
Matthew Glaetzer: “I had an appointment with the specialist who is going to be administering the radiotherapy for me. It was a discussion around how much I would need, and the possible side-effects from that treatment.
“I had a few concerns going into it because I’d heard about permanent reduction in my salivary gland function because they will also take up the radioactive iodine that I’m going to take.
“For what I do as a professional athlete, having a ‘cotton mouth’ for the rest of my life isn’t going to be ideal.
“He talked me through the process of what’s going to be in play.
“With the level of required treatment, it’s believed that they’re going to need two goes at it before possibly giving me the all-clear. But they are confident that it is all going to go well, so I was very relieved to hear that.
“At this point it hasn’t knocked me around physically at all.
“In the coming days, it’ll be about the process of being isolated because as soon as I take the radioactive iodine tablet, I then become radioactive for about a day. So, they just need to lock me up and for me to drink a lot of water and just wait for it to do its thing. Then I’ll get released a day later and, pretty much, kick on from there.
“The follow-up treatment from that would just be a scan a week later to determine the effectiveness, and if I’ll need to do it again or not.”
Matthew Glaetzer was told he had cancer while in a taxi on the way to the airport after testing equipment for the #Tokyo2020 Olympics.
He had surgery this week and courageously tells his story @theTiser
— Reece Homfray (@reecehomfray) November 9, 2019
Reece Homfray from the Adelaide Advertiser has thankfully documented the discovery of your thyroid cancer very well. Just to overview what happened: you’d been abroad, you thought you had a sore throat, and it turned into something much bigger.
Since then, you have had an operation, surgeons have taken out the whole thyroid gland is that correct?
Matthew Glaetzer: “Yes, that’s correct.”
And what medication will you now take for the rest of your life because of that?
Matthew Glaetzer: “The thyroid gland monitors and regulates your metabolism, so I now need to take Thyroxine which will give me a certain level of metabolism.
“There’s a process that I’ll go through in the next couple of months to accurately dial all that in and make all that is correct.
“If I take too much, I’ll just lose a lot of weight.
“If I take too little, then I’ll just get fat.
“With what I do, and the attention to detail that we have on nutrition and body composition, the Thyroxine dosage is a very important factor, something that I need to get correct – especially before the Olympics to make sure I’m in my best possible shape.
“I’ll be taking that drug for the rest of my life: two tablets, first thing in the morning, before breakfast.”
You’re a bit of an anomaly because normally we don’t hear the ‘cancer’ and then ‘Olympics’ in the same breath, but it seems like you have no intention of slowing down your training and that you’re going to go full-gas through to Tokyo and see if you can turn two sprint world titles into an Olympic gold medal. Can you talk through that aspiration? Was there a moment when you thought, ‘Well, stuff cycling – I’m just going to go and live a little…’?
Matthew Glaetzer: “Up until I found out that it was a very treatable version of cancer, it definitely made me think about things other than cycling. But I was informed very early on – pretty much as I was told I had cancer – what form of cancer I had.
“So, I had a sense of relief or comfort in knowing the type of cancer that I had, and that it was treatable.
“I had a bit of a vague idea that I will be able to continue to do what I do, and that goal is to race the sprint events for Australia in Tokyo next year.
“It was a case of then maximising the training right up until the day of surgery to, sort of, bank some solid work in the gym in advance of that week off that I needed to have post-surgery.
“It was really just an all-guns-blazing approach and I’m still fully motivated to go to Tokyo.
“I got the news and was like, ‘Shivers, that’s scary…’ but it’s manageable.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to let this have any more power over me, I’ll get on with the job.’”
Do you feel physically different from before the diagnosis? Are you, for example, still riding with the same kind of sensations?
Matthew Glaetzer: “Yeah, I don’t feel too different.
“That being said, I’ve just had my neck operated on and a two-centimetre tumour cut out, so in just managing that I’ve got tightness in the front of my neck from where the neck muscles got cut. So, it’s a process of trying to stretch those – or lengthen those – so I can look as close to normal on the bike.
“At the moment, I need to keep my chin tucked down a little bit to prevent my neck being stressed and aching after being stretched too much.
“Legs-wise: yeah, it was as if I just had a normal week off after a stint of racing; as though I just needed to get back into it a little.
“But I feel fine within myself.
“Obviously it’s just managing the little bit of stress which comes along when you think about it a bit too much, but other than that life has been very much the same as it was before and I’m seeing how much training I can do while taking into consideration the limitations that were imposed on me a little while ago.”
Emotionally the toll is probably greater than it is physically…
Matthew Glaetzer: “Yeah, I would say so. It is just not a great process to go through. And everyone is going through it, not just myself. It puts your family under… not under pressure but there’s a burden for them to carry as well. And they obviously worry a lot and are concerned about their child’s health…
“It’s been about managing the fall-out with me and everyone else, with me putting on a strong front as well to make sure that they didn’t overly stress about it.
“There is a challenge that comes with managing the C-word and the ominous connotations that that may have.
“Many people have very sad links with cancer and, thankfully, we believe that this experience that I’m going through right now is different. Yes, it still has that element of fear and the unknown, but we believe that it’s going to be okay in the end. I have a good prognosis from the specialists and it’s more the emotional toll that can have a strain on me and my family but we’re managing pretty well.”
Can we take a snapshot of some numbers so we can compare you as the Tokyo Games approach? What was your weight when you were at your world title winning best?
Matthew Glaetzer: “It was probably 93kg.”
And right now?
Matthew Glaetzer: “I’m 96.5kg.”
We’ll watch with interest to see how that develops with your medication and without a thyroid gland…
Matthew Glaetzer: “Yeah, that’s right. We need to make sure my metabolism is not stitching me up and that it doesn’t fluctuate too far one way or the other.”
Is there any issue with WADA and Thyroxine? Do you even need a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) for what you’re taking?
Matthew Glaetzer: “Double-checking all that is something on my to-do list. I need to get onto that, but I believe it’s all fine. It’s not exactly a performance-enhancer, but as a professional athlete, I know I’ve got to tick that box and be sure.
“I believe I would have been notified by my medical staff anyway because anything that I take needs to first be cleared by them and they are all over the proper processes to clear every product I put in my system.
“I’m confident it’s all good but I will personally check as well because, at the end of the day, that responsibility falls onto me.”
You talked about the lack of flexibility in your neck. Obviously, fresh off a surgery, it’s logical. That’s probably going to return to what you know as normal but one of your real strengths in the sprinting game was your flexibility and your ability to get into a really aero position all while you are putting brute force through the bike. Do you think that’s going to be compromised?
Matthew Glaetzer: “I don’t think so, no.
“My whole body below my neck is functioning as it was before surgery and as it has all year. So, I don’t think it’s going to influence my form or the way I ride.
“It’ll interesting to see how we go because there’s been a lot of focus on aerodynamics and equipment to try and make sure I’m in the optimal position.
“I’ll be trying to tweak things myself, with my position, to make it even better. It’s a matter of me actually trying to reduce the hump in my back due to my short hamstrings. That’s the only reason why I have the ‘visual’ position I have: because my hamstrings are so short. I’m trying to work on that to relieve a bit of pressure from my spine.”
You have said that, before surgery, in the gym you were pushing the biggest weights in your life. Can you offer some numbers that we can be amazed by? What exercises were you doing and what kind of weight were you pushing?
Matthew Glaetzer: “Before the operation, I was doing the leg press and doing 320kg for reps of three pretty comfortably. That was when I was in a very good physical state.
“I haven’t done leg press for too long, so I’ve had a steady built to get to that weight. So, those numbers are good for me.”
Where to from here? Are you back at the doctors every couple of days, or every couple of weeks? What will you do?
Matthew Glaetzer: “I’ll see the endocrinologist this week and start the process of dialing in the exact dosages of the Thyroxine drug to manage my metabolism throughout my life, going forward – and especially this Tokyo period.
“Then I will just make sure that I’m primed for the radioactive tablet post-Brisbane World Cup (13-15 December 2019) and after that will be the next time I see the specialist. There’ll be a follow-up scan a week later to see the effects of the medication and then I won’t have another treatment for six months.
“So, it’ll be a case of just letting the body reset and reduce the tolerance to the iodine so I can go again if needed in six months’ time.
“All going well, it’ll be a period of six months of trying to train normally as I get ready for the Olympic Games.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold