Light sensitivity, migraines and paranoia. Claustrophobia and a full-fledged panic attack while out at dinner.
Race car driver Matt Tifft felt the symptoms building in his head for the better part of three years by early 2016. Tifft told doctors about the symptoms while being treated for a bulging disc after a wreck. The good news: The symptoms were real. The bad news: The cause was a low-grade brain tumor.
“It was a relief to know it was something. But then the fear was, what does this mean for my career and my personal life moving forward?” Tifft said.
Today Tifft, who will turn 23 in June, is one of three rookies on the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series. He qualified 35th for Saturday’s Digital Ally 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Tifft always believed he’d be here, even if doctors said he’d never drive again.
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Surgeons removed a half-dollar portion of Tifft’s brain, and the road to everyday normalcy was a difficult. He was reintroduced slowly to everyday stimulus: light, sound, colors.
“Every new stimulant or activity, I could feel it imprinting on my brain. It felt like a dagger, the pain associated with that,” said Tifft.
Normal activities like going to the mall — with the background noise, lights and smells — proved exhausting. Tifft also learned about an unintended side effect one day when taking a cell phone call.
“I had the phone near the area of my surgery, and I could feel the wavelengths of the phone going through my head,” Tifft said. “It was insane.”
Tifft’s post-surgery prescriptions wreaked havoc too, causing an appetite increase that contributed to him gaining more than 50 pounds. But as the physical condition of his brain improved, there was the unique question of how to get cleared to race again, with no protocol in place.
Tifft’s doctors and NASCAR agreed on a course of action. The first step was five days of seizure testing in a hospital.
“I was in a 10-by-10 room with 26 probes hooked up to my head. The strobe lights and trying to introduce seizures, that wasn’t fun,” Tifft deadpanned.
After that came a neuro-cognitive test designed to clear military and commercial pilots to full duty. Tifft got clearance to return to the race track after three months, in August of 2016.
His first 30 laps back were in a late model car on a track in Hickory, N.C. That came after acclimating his senses to racing again first with video games, then racing simulators.
“The adrenaline kicked in, and the first couple laps, I didn’t know if I could do it,” Tifft said. “It was so emotional, brought me to tears.”
It also sent him straight to bed when the stimulus and physicality of racing proved exhausting. After a week of rest, Tifft returned to Hickory Motor Speedway and ran 300 laps in a simulated race. Tifft returned to the Xfinity Series in September.
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Tifft made the move to NASCAR’s top circuit after finishing seventh and sixth the last two years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He’s joined forces with the National Brain Tumor Society. Every start this season has added significance with May being Brain Tumor Awareness Month.
Tifft has appealed to the United States Congress for reforms that will lead to more research and treatment. He’s talked to hundreds of fellow brain tumor survivors.
“I’ve met so many at this point, and each one you want to figure out some way to help them,” Tifft said.
Tifft’s mind these days is filled with thoughts of gratitude, hope and top-10 finishes. It’s a welcome alternative.
To learn more about brain tumors and their effects, visit braintumor.org.