APSU student Ja-kay Matheny overcomes brain tumor to pursue education, comedy career

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Austin Peay State University social work major Ja-kay Matheny has been a lot of things in his life, including a father, husband, soldier, student — even an aspiring standup comedian. But for much of the last few years, Matheny himself would admit that he was barely anything at all.

“I was sick for a long, long time,” Matheny said. “I was gaining weight, failing classes, forgetting simple things I should know and I was getting angry with my kids all the time for no reason.

“Doctors ran every normal test, and every result came back normal; I was sick and I didn’t know why.”

That’s because the life Matheny had built for himself was being unraveled by a microadenoma; a small, benign brain tumor affecting his pituitary gland. While the tumor was not fatal, it caused a decline in testosterone production, resulting in sharp both physical and emotional changes that left Matheny without answers as his problems mounted.

A Gary, Indiana native, Matheny served eight years on active duty in the U.S. Army as a medic. His health issues began, Matheny said, when he noticed unexplained weight gain which impacted his ability to meet Army fitness requirements. Normally 200 pounds, Matheny’s weight ballooned to 230 in just one month while his strength levels equally plummeted.

“I was running, I was doing extra physical training; I was doing everything I was supposed to do, but I couldn’t explain my weight gain,” Matheny said. “On fitness tests, I went from being able to do 60-70 pushups at a time to barely being able to do 10. I fought hard to stay in shape, but all of a sudden, things were getting away from me.”

After being honorably discharged in 2013, he enrolled at Hopkinsville Community College (HCC). But like in the Army, Matheny’s body failed him once more — this time as he struggled to remember the basics he learned during his time in the Army.

“I was a medic in the Army, so if there’s one thing I should know, it’s the human body,” Matheny said. “I was sure of that at least, but I took a human anatomy and physiology class and got a C. I couldn’t remember anything: the names of bones, the way the blood flows to the heart; simple stuff I worked with daily suddenly became a blur, and it really freaked me out.”

Matheny’s grades fell, his GPA dipping as low as 1.6 before withdrawing from classes after consecutive failing semesters. Without the Army or school, Matheny continued to pursue his side career of comedy before that too became unmanageable and the single father of four began to spend up to 20 hours a day in bed.

The situation came to a head in December 2015 when a visit to his doctor set Matheny on the road to answers. Armed with a laundry list of tests for his doctor at the VA, Matheny’s tumor was finally discovered — as well as the low testosterone at the root of many of his problems.

“Finding out I had a brain tumor shook everything up for me because a lot of my issues finally started to make sense,” Matheny said. “When the body stops producing testosterone on its own like mine was, it instead started producing estrogen. When I found out about that, things began to make a lot more sense.

“To put it into perspective, a healthy male’s testosterone level is somewhere around 300 at the low end to 900 or more at the high end,” Matheny said. “My testosterone level at the time was 64. There was probably some old lady walking around out there with more testosterone than I had.”

While the tumor’s location means it cannot be removed, Matheny said he found treatment in the form of testosterone replacement therapy. The injections have proved to be life-changing as his body began to return to normal and the mental “fog” he once experienced lifted. Returning to classes in January 2016, Matheny’s grades quickly improved and he earned his associate degree from HCC before enrolling at Austin Peay in August. That success has continued at APSU, as Matheny has twice been named to the academic Dean’s List while pursuing a degree in social work.

Matheny also returned to the stage, regularly performing across Middle Tennessee and neighboring stages with his show, titled “Humor of an Odd Black Guy.” Going by J Lamaar during his performances, Matheny said he uses his time on stage to poke fun at himself as a way of taking back ownership of his life.

“When I tell you that one (testosterone injection) turned things around for me, I mean it,” Matheny said. “I look back on comedy shows I did while I was sick now, and it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time. I just wasn’t able to focus or remember anything I was doing (before discovering the tumor).

“But when I finally got treated, I went back to school, I took biology and got a 98 percent; everything I used to know came right back,” Matheny said. “It wasn’t easy, and I had to keep pushing to find someone who would help me. I thank my doctor every time I see him because I can finally show everyone just what I can be.”

For more information on Matheny’s comedy, he can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JLamarrHumor. For more information on Austin Peay’s Department of Social Work, visit www.apsu.edu/socialwork.

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