The American Ninja Warrior Host Gets Honest About His Life, His Health, and the Obstacles He Conquered to Get to Where He Is Now
by Laura Shipp
You probably know Matt Iseman as the host of NBC’s hit summer reality show American Ninja Warrior. It’s the one where athletes from across the country take on a series of extreme obstacle courses, competing to see who can hang on the longest. Matt’s enthusiastic voice can be heard giving the play-by-play as competitors shinny across the rolling log, scramble up the salmon ladder, and scale the show’s signature warped wall. Matt also hosts A&E’s Live Rescue and is the winner of NBC’s The New Celebrity Apprentice, under movie star “boss” Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When Matt sits down to a phone interview with Coping magazine in late March, he should have been in the middle of filming for Ninja Warrior. Instead, production on the show has been postponed for a couple of weeks due to a novel coronavirus popping up in some parts of the U.S. (At press time, Ninja Warrior has been put on hold indefinitely as the country has shut down to help slow the spread of COVID-19.) Amid a foreboding sense of uncertainty settling across the nation, Matt talks earnestly about his life, his health, and the obstacles he had to conquer to get to where he is now.
“… whether it’s cancer or a car accident or a virus, we don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Do What Makes You Happy
Matt is someone who’s well-acquainted with the notion that life doesn’t always go according to plan. To begin with, the Daytime Emmy Award-winning host had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a medical doctor. He graduated from Princeton with honors, got a medical degree from Columbia University, and returned home to start a residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Colorado, where his dad was a professor. At times, the two Dr. Isemans even worked side by side. Until, Matt decided to give up medicine to pursue a surprising new career – stand-up comedy.
When asked about his unusual career change, Matt says, “Medicine was the perfect career for me on paper. I love science. I love helping people. But I realized that we don’t live our lives on paper. And for me, my heart just wasn’t in it the way it should be. I believe medicine is a calling. It’s more than a job; it’s a sacred responsibility when people place their lives in your hands. And I just didn’t feel my heart was in the right place to be able to continue.”
Steadfast in his decision, Matt says that the most difficult part was telling his pulmonologist father about his plan to walk away from the profession they both shared. “He never pressured me to go into medicine,” Matt stresses, “but I was terrified of what he would say when I told him I was going to take a break and go to L.A. and do stand-up. To his credit, the first words out of his mouth were ‘Life is short; do what makes you happy.’” That advice would buoy Matt as he faced the challenges that lay ahead.
“Anytime the word cancer comes up, it’s hard not to conjure worst-case scenarios. I think the more we can tell stories about these good outcomes, the more people realize there’s hope.”
Get Your Life Back
Shortly after moving to L.A., Matt landed his first gig as an extra on The Drew Carey Show. That led to him getting an agent, then booking commercials, and eventually to becoming the effervescent TV host we all know and love. However, the road to Hollywood success wasn’t exactly smooth.
In 2002, at age 31, Matt was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after a year and a half of experiencing painful, debilitating symptoms. The former athlete could no longer work out, had gained over 50 lbs., and was sleeping 12 hours a day but still felt exhausted.
“My life fell apart,” Matt says. “To all of a sudden be told you have a chronic autoimmune disease and there’s no cure … You’ll always be on treatment, and even with treatment, there’s no guarantee on what your future could be. That was a real blow.”
Matt soon started treatment with an immunosuppressant that got his rheumatoid arthritis symptoms under control. It also gave him his life back.
Because Matt’s rheumatoid arthritis medication suppresses his immune system, it makes him more prone to infection. So, he doesn’t think too much of it when, five years later in 2007, he starts experiencing some chest discomfort. Believing it’s probably just an infection, Matt makes an appointment with his doctor to get it checked out. A chest X-ray shows that his lungs are clear. However, because Matt had flown recently, his doctor sends him to the ER for a CAT scan to rule out pulmonary embolism.
Once again, his lungs are clear. But, just at the bottom of the scan, opposite from where his pain originated, the radiologist happens to notice a small mass on Matt’s kidney. He’s told it’s likely malignant and that he needs surgery. Also, he’s lucky the tumor was caught early. It might be years before it would cause symptoms, and by that time, it could have metastasized.
Three weeks, one five-hour surgery, and a pathology report later, Matt is diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. He’s also told he’s cancer-free.
“It was just surreal,” Matt says. “You’re faced with this specter of cancer, and then you find out – worse-case scenario – you do have cancer. But in that same breath, you’re told the cancer is now gone. My head was spinning.
“I know how lucky I am. That’s why I like to share my story. Because anytime the word cancer comes up, it’s hard not to conjure worst-case scenarios. I think the more we can tell stories about these good outcomes, the more people realize there’s hope.”
“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Life is short; do what makes you happy.’”
Matt has been cancer-free for more than a decade. His rheumatoid arthritis is still responding to treatment and has been well controlled for the last 18 years. All things considered, his health is great. However, as a cancer survivor living with a chronic disease requiring immunosuppressant medication, Matt is aware that he may be at higher risk during the current COVID-19 pandemic. He’s presently sheltering at home and following all necessary health precautions.
While production for American Ninja Warrior is indefinitely on hold, Matt is showing us that life is not on hold. From hosting a Facebook Live celebrity challenge event for the Arthritis Foundation to helping launch trivia podcast Factorious, Matt is making good use of his time off work. And he’s still paying heed those timeless words of wisdom shared by his father so many years ago.
“As we’re seeing right now,” he says, “nothing is guaranteed. Whatever’s happening, things can change in an instant. And it goes back to my dad’s advice. Life is short, and whether it’s cancer or a car accident or a virus, we don’t know what’s around the corner. Find your happiness now. Go out and do things that you know will make you happy. When you do that, it’s amazing how much power you have over your life.”
More from Our Conversation with Matt
As host of American Ninja Warrior, has the experience taught you anything about life in general, or about overcoming medical challenges?
Being a part of Ninja Warrior is so humbling, because anytime I think things that I have faced are challenging, I see people who are out here running the course with Parkinson’s disease, people who’ve had cancer, people who’ve had strokes, people who’ve lost limbs. You see people who have gone through far worse and still find a way to continue to pursue their goals.
I feel lucky being around these people. It’s been amazing seeing the athletes on Ninja Warrior and the strength that people have in challenging situations. You see that the power of sharing these positive stories gives people hope. And that’s what I love about Ninja Warrior. You overcome literal obstacles on the course, but it’s the metaphorical ones in life that you overcome that really define people.
Was there anything that helped you cope with the disease and your surgery?
Humor! I’ve found through the [rheumatoid arthritis], through cancer, through any hardships, that when you have these strong emotions, laughter is such a therapeutic way to get things out. And to me, it’s such a healthy way.
Is there any other advice you’d like to give our readers who are facing cancer, or any lessons you’d like to share?
You’re not alone. You often feel alone with the diagnosis. You have your support, you have the doctors, you have your family, you have your friends and loved ones, but there’s something about talking to somebody who’s been through it. You’re a part of a family that you never asked to be a part of, but you’re glad it’s there. No need to go through this alone.
What accomplishments are you the proudest of?
Becoming a doctor. It was an amazing accomplishment. It was the hardest I ever worked. So, having my M.D. is definitely a point of pride.
And since coming out to L.A., the thing that I’m most proud of was going on Celebrity Apprentice and winning with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the boss. I got to meet and become friends with one of the biggest idols of all my life – Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s a friend now. The guy whose poster was on my wall growing up, he’s now a friend of mine. And best of all, I got to raise money for charity and share my story.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2020.
All photos are courtesy of The Riker Brothers.