On Saturday, March 4, 2017 Matthew Tifft, a rookie NASCAR driver on the Xfinity Series who survived a brain tumor, got behind the wheel of his number 19 car in Atlanta, Georgia for the Rinnai 250. Matt is an up-and-coming star for the vaunted Joe Gibbs Racing team, and he was driving a very unique car.
He and his family graciously decided to make the National Brain Tumor Society the primary sponsor of his car that day, giving-up valuable sponsorship space to support a cause close to their heart. The car was wrapped with the logo, taglines, website, and colors of the National Brain Tumor Society. NASCAR acquired many new fans that day, as Matt raced as a member of the brain tumor community – providing hope and inspiration to so many patients, caregivers, and families.
Matt finished 12th out of 40 drivers in the race, a great result given his rookie status and first-time-ever on the track at Atlanta.
NBTS sat down with Matt Tifft to learn more about the Tifft family’s generous offer to promote the brain tumor community during the race. He also discussed this coming weekend’s Charlotte Brain Tumor Race and Walk fundraising event on April 1, as he will be participating with his family to show continued support for NBTS’s mission of finding better treatments, and ultimately a cure for brain tumors.
NBTS: Describe your feelings when you were first diagnosed with a brain tumor?
Tifft: I had a back injury a couple of years ago, and went to the doctor to get it checked. At the same time, I was experiencing some sensitivity to light, and had a concussion in the past, so I decided to get a head MRI as well. As it turns out, they found a half-dollar-sized, low-grade glioma in my brain. Obviously, I was scared and confused. And, I didn’t have enough information. Didn’t know where to turn at first.
I don’t want others to experience that empty, confusing feeling in the future. Which is why I am raising awareness. I didn’t know if I would drive again, which is my passion.
NBTS: Describe your treatment and rehab?
Tifft: First, I had surgery to remove the tumor. Going through the recovery process, I certainly questioned whether things would get back to normal, but I always kept driving in the back of my mind. I committed to getting back behind the wheel. I did a series of brain puzzles, which seemed a bit ‘silly’ at first, but I realized as time went on that they were really helpful. Doing those online games and puzzles over and over, I found, months down the road, that they helped clear my head.
Funny story, what a twist. I race at high speeds, but after the brain tumor surgery, I just wanted to get back behind the wheel of a regular car, and just go 25 miles per hour down a street to a gas station or fast food place. When I could drive again, that was a huge step for me coming back from surgery. I had finally asked my Dad if I could drive, and he said “yes, let’s try it.” Once I literally got back on the road, it was a huge triumph for me because I knew I was on the “road” back to NASCAR.
“I wanted to create awareness that you can fight through your treatments and come back strong. I was inspired and thankful that I could represent the brain tumor community in a positive, very visible way.” – Matt Tifft
NBTS: Tell us about your support system and family?
Tifft: My family and girlfriend have been an amazing support system for me, as well as the incredible people at Joe Gibbs Racing. What a compassionate, professional staff. I am so lucky to be part of this Team, and I’ve been so lucky to have my parents by my side throughout this whole process. My family partnered with my doctors and neuro-oncologist, and we were aware of each step of the process – from post-diagnosis to surgery and beyond. I would tell every brain tumor patient to make sure you partner with your medical staff, and learn as much as you can.
NBTS: Describe your feelings when you first got back behind the wheel?
Tifft: The first couple of weeks after surgery, I was watching races on TV because I wanted to stay active and know what was going on. But, I really knew that I wanted to be out there. I started driving trucks back in August. And, Daytona was my first race this season. At first, coming back, it was tough because I felt a little different. My tongue would get stuck on simple words, like tongue twisters, but they were just regular words. I felt a bit of pain. I was thinking at first, do I have to do things differently while driving in the car?
I had some doubts early on, and was a bit nervous. But, I was just thinking too much. I was thinking about what could happen when I get that first “big hit” when cars bump each other. But, that happened at Daytona, and it was just a big hit like normal. No effects. Once that happened, I was fine, and I had the confidence to go on. Now, the adrenaline takes over, and I am focused, and I’ve been responding really, really well.
I got back to 100% quickly, and that is exciting. In Atlanta, the track was tough and slick, I had not experienced that track before, and the car slipped a bit. But, my Team was happy with my performance.
NBTS: What side effects, if any, are you still experiencing?
Tifft: I sometimes felt a bit of pain at times in my head. Just every once in a while. At the race track when I first came back last year, I was inundated with reporters talking to me, and fans, and cameras. The cars and loud noise got to me at first. I had to “get out of there” to get some quiet. But, I am 100% now and can continue to focus on my career.
NBTS: Why did you partner with the National Brain Tumor Society?
Tifft: I’ve talked about this in the past, but people don’t know much about brain tumors. You hear about other types of cancer, and other diseases, and you know you could be cured. You know the resource to go to, you know which type of doctor, and generally you know what to do. Brain tumors are a little different. There’s a stigma that it’s a death sentence, that your life is over. I want to be an advocate for brain tumor awareness and help those others in need.
National Brain Tumor Society has been wonderfully supportive of me and my family, and their staff are genuinely proactive, helpful, and excited about this collaboration. They are so different and so engaged with everything we’re trying to do. I really like working with these folks. And, the Charlotte Brain Tumor Run and Walk was just a natural opportunity to work together to raise funds for research, while promoting the challenges of the brain tumor community.
NBTS: What would you like to tell all brain tumor patients?
Tifft: Being able to talk to brain tumor patients and having an avenue to talk about my brain tumor experience is exciting. I love it. I want to be able to help people more. The more I can raise awareness, the better chance we have to find cures, and it doesn’t have to have such a bad stigma. I tell people to partner with their doctors and medical staff. Do as much research as possible. Get multiple opinions every step of the way, and create a support system around you, who can provide encouragement, information, and help with decision making.
NBTS: How did it feel driving in Atlanta under the “colors” of the brain tumor community?
Tifft: I was so happy and excited to do this. I wanted to get the word out, and we got a lot of recognition and air time about the mission to find cures for brain tumors. I wanted to make sure people understood the challenges with brain tumors, and I wanted to create awareness that you can fight through your treatments and come back strong. I was inspired and thankful that I could represent the brain tumor community in a positive, very visible way.
NBTS: Tell us about your decision to participate, and create a Team for the Charlotte Brain Tumor Race and Walk on April 1, 2017?
Tifft: I not only want to create awareness, but I feel it is important to raise funds for research, and truly get involved in the mission from many levels. So, it was only natural for me and my family to create a survivor walk team called #JoinTeamMatt to raise money for the Charlotte Brain Tumor Race. This race is close to where I live, so I wanted to participate, and get friends and family to join my Team to raise money and create even more awareness. I encourage NASCAR and Gibbs Racing fans to check out #JoinTeamMatt and support my Team during this very different kind of race.
To #JoinTeamMatt at the Charlotte Brain Tumor Race, visit: http://events.braintumor.org/charlotte-brain-tumor-race/