Two and a half years ago, then Cherry Hill West senior Matthew Stankus was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. The news, quite obviously, changed all aspects of his life moving forward.
The diagnosis, which occurred in early November of 2018, came after several months of treatment over the summer for what Stankus and his family originally believed was a virus. Due to the rare form of cancer, Stankus could not compete in his senior swimming season, learning of the news just weeks before the start of the upcoming season.
The news was, of course, heartbreaking for Stankus and one of his closest friends Jack Zeigler. The two, childhood friends, were both named captains for their upcoming senior seasons.
“You kind of have this picture in your head of how your senior year might go,” said Zeigler. “Obviously with that, we knew it wouldn’t go how we always thought it would.”
Earlier this month, Stankus passed away following multiple chemotherapy treatments that were unable to keep the cancer dormant.
To honor Stankus and his two-and-a-half-year long battle, the Cherry Hill West Swimming team announced shortly after the news of his passing that the program would rename it’s ‘Unsung Hero’ award the Matthew Stankus award in his honor. Stankus won the award all four years of his high school career.
Looking back, Cherry Hill West head coach Christie Robertson says the decision to rename the award after Stankus was a no-brainer.
“It wasn’t even a question to do it,” Robertson said. “He was our Unsung Hero, we just want to honor him after having lost him … everything he did was for the team, it was never about himself.”
“He was always a team-first swimmer,” Robertson added.
Throughout that final season at West, an outpouring of support went Stankus’ way, ranging from the local swim clubs (South Jersey Aquatic Club and Kingston Estates Swim Club), opposing teams in the South Jersey Swim League and others in North Jersey that had heard of his battle within the swim community.
Most notably, a dual meet between Cherry Hill High School East and Cherry Hill High School West, typically a big rivalry, saw the two teams come together in unity to support Matthew’s battle, with swimmers from both teams donning t-shirts representing his fight.
Moments like that throughout that year, Kathleen says, were truly touching.
“When [other schools] first did it, speaking for myself, I cried,” Kathleen said. “Matthew was a very introverted, kind of quiet kid so it was so unexpected to him … he was so humbled by it. He was always very shocked when a team would do something in support of him or raise money.”
“It really mattered because he was going through really tough treatments and he didn’t want anyone to know how tough they were,” Kathleen added.
According to both coach Christine Robertson and mother Kathleen Stankus, Matthew continued to attend meets with the team throughout the year and continued his role as a captain of the team, helping out wherever possible despite being unable to physically compete.
“We would make sure he was rested and ready to go to an event or meet, and while he was there he would act like he wasn’t a cancer patient for that period of time… and that was really awesome,” said Kathleen.
Whilst enduring chemotherapy and other treatments, Kathleen says Matthew never complained about the hand he was dealt. Instead, he kept on fighting day after day.
“I never heard him say ‘why is this happening to me’ or complain about it,” Kathleen said. “Even with all he was going through, he was just happy that he was still able to get on the bus and hang out with his friends and be a part of the team, and that was enough for him.”