Even before he knew about it, the tumor that once slowly grew in Matt Tifft‘s brain kept him awake at night.
When Tifft drove at night, walked through his darkened house or just lay in bed, a sense of paranoia would envelop the then 19-year-old.
“I actually for a long time would hear strange voices,” Tifft told NBC Sports. “One of the symptoms of brain tumors is badly increased anxiety. That would actually really bother me. I would have to have a box fan. I would have to have some kind of noise to distract me from it to be able to fall asleep.”
He couldn’t always drown out the “strange whispers.” Tifft would often hear eerie music.
“It seemed a lot of times like pop songs with female singers and it would get played into this bizarre, creepy tune in my head,” Tifft said. “And it was warping itself and it was really freaky. It was really bizarre. I didn’t know what it was and it didn’t bother me during the day or anything.”
The strange sensation grew “more and more frequent” as time went on. Tifft went from being “a very calm person to being a very paranoid person in that time frame. … It was totally taking over my head.”
The nocturnal feelings were compounded by an early morning sensitivity to light, which Tifft thought was the result a concussion earlier in his racing career.
This was what led to Tifft to ask for a MRI of his brain in early June last year during a doctor’s visit related to a back problem. Weeks later, on July 1, Tifft had brain surgery to remove a low-grade tumor in his right frontal lobe.
Almost a year later, the whispers and paranoia are gone.
Now Tifft is reminded of the tumor and recovery process that kept him out of the driver’s seat for three months every time he gets a hair cut.
That’s when he sees the scar.
“I always kind of forget it’s there until I go get a hair cut and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s still there,'” Tifft said. “You never know if it’s going to go away or not.”
Now what keeps Tifft awake at night is the general anxiety of being a rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series.
“For awhile it was, ‘ok, what’s wrong with me?'” Tifft said. “Now, it’s just, ‘Ok, how do I make myself better? What do I need to do to do get our team where it needs to be and get out of where we’ve been?’ … At the same time I’ve actually taken quite a few steps to control that stress and anxiety throughout the week.
“I think that’s been part of my maturation process, being able to control that and be able to just let it go a little bit. I’ve gotten better with that. It’s learning how to slow down and be your thoughts in your head. I think that’s the biggest thing now, just wanting to be better and wanting to succeed.”
The Hinckley, Ohio native is 10 races into his tenure driving the No. 19 Toyota full-time for JGR. So far his results haven’t been stellar. He is eighth in points and has earned just two top 10s (Texas, Talladega). He’s led only four laps, at Phoenix, and he placed 26th last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway for his second-worst finish of the year.
But the tense summer last year surrounding his tumor has provided Tifft with helpful insight surrounding his career and life.
It could be worse.
“Other than check ups, I’m good,” said Tifft, who gets a MRI every eight weeks to make sure there’s no signs of a resurgent tumor. “There’s still people that do have to deal with it.”
Every week, Tifft tries to meet fans at the track who have gone through similar experiences or with family members of those who have. At Charlotte, Tifft’s car was sponsored by the National Brain Tumor Society and BrainTumor.com as part of Brain Tumor Awareness Month.
In April, Tifft took part in Charlotte’s Brain Tumor 5k that raised $135,000 for research and awareness. A month later, Tifft traveled to Washington D.C. to petition members of Congress for more funding for brain tumor research programs.
“I guess that makes me feel good to still help out other people and families going through it,” Tifft said. “A lot of people, it’s not four months of stuff, it’s four years. It’s forty years worth of stuff. That’s a bit different than what I had to do.”
But the four months Tifft experienced will make June 26 mean a bit more to him this year. That’s when Tifft will turn 21.
“Everyone talks about turning 21, people know why you’re excited to turn that,” Tifft said. “But for me, I’ve gone through so much by the time I’ve been 21 years old. It’s crazy when you look back at the year. Not only me, everything I’ve had to grow through and things going on around me. It’s been a pretty challenging year just in itself. I’m hoping that’s a bit of a reset button.”
However he celebrates, at least he’ll be able to sleep it off.