Despite undergoing aggressive treatment, Matthew Stankus has been to nearly every Cherry Hill West meet this season, serving as a team captain and as an inspiration to many.
Cherry Hill High School West senior Matthew Stankus never jumped into the pool for the Lions’ annual meet against Cherry Hill High School East last Tuesday
However, everyone in the standing room only crowd at Camden County Technical School was rooting for him.
The South Jersey swimming community has rallied around Stankus since early November, when Stankus was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. Teams from across the area have showed their support for Stankus in numerous ways throughout the high school season. Last Tuesday, the Cherry Hill community united behind the West senior as swimmers and fans from both the Cherry Hill East and Cherry Hill West boys and girls swim teams wore special shirts to support Stankus and dedicated their 2019 dual meet to him.
For Stankus and his family, the news of his cancer diagnosis came as a shock. Matthew’s mother, Kathleen Stankus, said Matthew had been treated over the summer for what the family though was a virus, but was not getting better. Matthew was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma on Nov. 2, weeks prior to the start of the high school season.
The Mayo Clinic describes rhabdomyosarcoma as a cancer that forms in skeletal muscle tissue or sometimes in hollow organs such as the bladder or uterus. This form of cancer also typically affects children.
“It’s a very aggressive form of cancer, so they’re treating it aggressively,” Kathleen said.
After the diagnosis, Matthew began a treatment plan featuring chemotherapy and radiation. While Kathleen said doctors have informed the family that rhabdomyosarcoma as responds well to this type of treatment, the diagnosis definitely threw a wrench into Matthew and his family’s lives.
After news of Matthew’s diagnosis spread, the family began receiving an outpouring of support from people all over South Jersey. The Stankus family has been heavily involved in swimming for a number of years, with Matthew swimming for South Jersey Aquatic Club in Voorhees as well as Kingston Estates Swim Club in the summer. Kathleen said the entire swimming community rallied around the family the past couple of months.
“We’ve had a ton of support. It’s been family, friends, strangers,” Kathleen said. “People have been fantastic.”
Kristen Holcroft runs SJAC and is the owner of Nexxt Level Aquatics with her husband, Pete. The Holcrofts have always been close with the Stankus family as Matthew and his three siblings swam with the club. Additionally, Matthew has done part-time work at SJAC, and both Kathleen and his older sister, Kailey, are instructors with the club.
“It was a shock for sure,” Kristen Holcroft said about the news “(The response) was, whatever we can do. Even in the beginning, if it was just to be there for Kathleen.”
Prior to being diagnosed, Matthew’s teammates had already elected him as a captain for the season. Cherry Hill West head coach Christie Robertson described Matthew has a team-first swimmer who had been one of the Lions’ hardest workers in previous seasons.
Upon hearing about the diagnosis, Matthew admitted he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to swim in his senior year. However, nothing was going to keep him away from his team. He decided he was going to be a captain and attend every meet he could.
“It’s a load of fun,” Matthew said. “A lot of the team are good friends. It keeps me going, out of the house and it’s been a really fun thing to keep doing.”
“It’s made it a lot easier with everything that is going on,” Matthew added.
Another one of Cherry Hill West’s captains, Jack Zeigler, has been friends with Matthew for many years and was thrilled to hear Matthew was going to be with the team throughout the season.
“I’ve been friends with Matt since elementary school,” Zeigler said. “This has been our dream since our freshman year. I wouldn’t want to be captains with anyone else.”
Senior Brian Robertson talked of how the whole team decided to dedicate their season to Matthew. Robertson said the team has treated him as part of the team and Matthew himself has had a big impact on the other swimmers.
“He’s been helping us with splits,” Robertson said. “He’s been giving us talks, just helping us with swimming since he swam in club. He’s had a really big impact with the younger kids.”
Throughout the high school season, multiple teams have showed their support for Matthew. In the Lions first meet of the season against Eastern Regional High School, the team wore purple in support of Stankus and the team presented the family with a gift card for the holidays. Later in the season, Shawnee High School also wore purple and pledged to make a donation to the family to help pay for medical costs.
“I have friends on a lot of the teams we’ve been going against,” Matthew said. “Whether it’s them just mentioning me or something else, it’s been amazing. It’s been almost every team so far.”
“Because they’ve been so involved, that’s why it’s so wide reaching,” Holcroft said. “It’s not just the SJAC swim team. From that team, the kids swim at a lot of the high schools in the area.”
Kathleen feels the support Cherry Hill West has received from other schools has been uplifting not just for her family, but for Matthew’s Cherry Hill West teammates.
“It’s not just how it impacted Matthew,” she said. “The whole team is going through this. It’s really awe-inspiring.”
Last Tuesday’s swim meet between East and West was a highlight for the season. Leading up to the meet, Zeigler reached out to Cherry Hill East team captains to come up with a way both schools could honor Matthew. The decision was made to create T-shirts featuring the East and West team logos with a purple ribbon on the front and Stankus’ name on the back. The two teams sold the shirts and donated the proceeds to the Stankus family.
“It was a group effort coming up with the idea,” Zeigler said. “I was the one who designed them. After that, it just spread around.”
“I was just amazed,” Matthew said about the shirts. “They kept it a secret when it started, so I had no idea. When everyone started telling me that they were buying all my shirts, I was really surprised. I was really happy.”
More support for the Stankus family is coming. On Saturday, Feb. 2, SJAC is hosting a Beef and Bags fundraiser at Nexxt Level Aquatics. Proceeds from the event will go to the Stankus family to help pay for Matthew’s medical bills.
Beef and Bags will include a number of activities, such as a cornhole tournament, music, silent and Chinese auctions, and more. Kids will get the chance to play pool games and also watch a movie on the pool’s scoreboard.
Holcroft said virtually everything from the facilities to the paper plates for the event has been donated, allowing the maximum amount of money to go to the Stankus family.
“It really has been a true testament to everyone around here,” she said.
Tickets are $20 per person or $75 per family. The cost to play in the cornhole tournament is $10. To purchase tickets, visit https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfOnswIuM3rdPEdf70lFzxSQCQtGk_nHfgUFTVDXgYD-ZJtZw/viewform.