Junior English major Monica Kohler was getting ready to take an exam at eight in the morning when the call came in: her boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer.
Years before doctors found melanoma in Matt McVicker’s leg, he and Kohler got to know each other at running camp.
“It was literally me going up to him sitting at his locker and saying hi every day,” Kohler said. “He was super shy, and I was very persistent.”
McVicker, a junior engineering major at the University of Virginia, and Kohler were both members of the track and field team at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va. McVicker pole-vaulted and Kohler ran, so they spent their days together on and off the practice field. From the moment he worked up the nerve to ask her to the homecoming dance, the two were nearly inseparable.
“We went to all the meets together, all the track trips together and spent time together out of school non-stop,” Kohler said.
Graduation came and went, and the couple headed for two of Virginia’s biggest rival schools: Virginia Tech and UVa. Attempting a long-distance relationship is the hardest strain most high school sweethearts face, but for Kohler and McVicker, distance was nothing compared to cancer.
“There was a long period of time when his mom or dad had to be at school with him because he couldn’t walk,” Kohler said. “It was really challenging for me to be at Tech trying to focus on what I needed to focus on while wanting to be where he was.”
Melanoma is judged visually using the “ABCDE” system: if a suspicious mole is asymmetrical, borders that are irregular, colors that change, diameters larger than six millimeters or evolves over time, it might be melanoma.
Melanoma is one the deadliest forms of cancer. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health predicts 9,840 Americans will die from melanoma this year. The average age of a patient diagnosed with melanoma in the United States is 50, but McVicker’s was diagnosed much younger.
“I would be the one having freak outs and he was the one who was really strong and confident,” Kohler said. “It’s one of those situations where I should have been his rock, and instead, he was mine.”
McVicker said he never considered letting the negative possibilities of his future affect him.
“I never let myself consider I was going to die from it,” McVicker said. “My biggest focus was getting through school and getting good grades.”
McVicker received his biopsy report in October 2010; he and Kohler both recalled traveling home nearly every weekend for doctor’s appointments. The drive from Charlottesville, Va. to Burke is a two-hour trip each way.
McVicker missed a quarter of his fall semester freshman year but was able to keep up with his missed lectures by taking three partially online.
Kohler added that McVicker’s professors gave him special exam times and posted a lot of his work online. The couple didn’t broadcast McVicker’s cancer, because he didn’t want to let anyone worry — even to the point of downplaying his struggle.
“He got really good grades that year,” Kohler said. “It was unbelievable.”