My Boyfriend’s Cancer Will Make You Rethink Everything You Know About the Term ‘Legacy’

Matthew Iaria passed away from complications of esophageal cancer in 2016 but he left behind something remarkable.

Photo by Tyler Babin

Esophageal cancer labeled “distant” has a survival rate of 4%. In the state of New York, there will be 1,200 cases annually — 900 male and 300 female — all with a fatality rate of 90%. My boyfriend Matthew made it only eight months after his initial diagnosis of Stage IV cancer located on his GI tract but during the time he was alive, he often talked about the idea of a legacy. Without actually saying the word.

Matthew Vincent Pearson Iaria was 24 when he was diagnosed, 25 when he passed away in ICU on December 9, 2016. What reason is there to take someone’s child? What justification is there for the world, the universe, God — whoever you want to believe decides — to end the life of someone who’s only just getting started? The life of someone who had settled down, who had pictures of an engagement ring saved on his phone, and who talked of getting married and having children as soon as cancer treatments were successfully over? How can anyone justify taking that life?

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Matthew was an avid proponent of immunotherapy. On our first date, he told me, “Immunotherapy is the thing that’s hopefully going to save my life.” Whereas chemotherapy attacks one’s entire body — both the “good” and “bad” cells — in order to destroy the cancerous cells, immunotherapy uses the immune system to specifically target only the cells that have mutated.

Immunotherapy has the rapt attention of the medical community, but thus far has only proven to be successful in treating kidney, skin, lung, head, and neck cancers. Despite there being little proof that immunotherapy is an effective treatment for esophageal cancer, Matthew was adamant and with the helpful insistence of his father, they convinced his oncologists at Cornell to approve the treatment for him.

Two days before he died, we relayed to Matt what the Cornell team had said. He lay in the hospital bed, looking like himself but also not. We had shaved his head though the chemo drug Cisplatin never claimed his hair. We told him: Cornell had already tapped three more patients to receive immunotherapy, solely based on Matthew’s persistence and unyielding belief in the drug.

He was to be the first ever patient at Cornell to receive immunotherapy treatment for a gastrointestinal cancer. He was to be in medical journals. My babe — my man — was to set the precedent for hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of GI cancer cases.

Now that’s a fucking legacy.

He was scheduled to receive immunotherapy treatment on December 9. The drugs were being prepared in the hospital pharmacy downstairs but he never made it to treatment. His bowel perforated and the cancer metastasized everywhere. His body was made of more cancer and infection than it was made of Matt and he passed away in the afternoon after a painful and horrible fight.

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I have his hospital bracelet in my room. It’s dated 11/27/2016. When he went into the emergency room complaining of an intense stomachache the day after Thanksgiving, I never entertained the idea that he wouldn’t come out.

Matthew passed away a little over a month ago and I haven’t thought as much about his legacy since then. After all, he wasn’t the first esophageal cancer patient to receive immunotherapy; he hadn’t made it to that marker. My mind has more or less been more concentrated on the grief, on trying to wrap it around the inexplicable confusion of death, and the terribly emotional realizations that I’m alone, that I’m never going to marry him, the man I wanted forever, that we’re never going to have the big, beautiful blue house I had pictured us in. That we only got a short amount of time together though we deserved the longest forever possible.

Then one of his oncologists reminded me, his legacy still exists, running parallel with the grief that has clouded us. “He did open doors [for] others,” she told me. “I have seven people lined up for immunotherapy as a compassionate use because of Matthew. He showed us the way.”

“His story will resonate to the next patient and the next,” she continued, “until we can prove immunotherapy will cure GI cancers.”

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I miss the man who sat in the doctor’s office and retaliated, steadfast and even-toned, “That’s bullshit,” when doctors initially told him immunotherapy wasn’t the way. I miss the man who sobbed in his hospital bed when we told him he had paved the path for immunotherapy treatment in gastrointestinal cancers — the man who said, “That’s all I ever wanted out of this… to help people.” I miss the man who drove the boat at full speed and yelled out, “No fucks given!” and who held my hand in the car even as he drove stick shift.

I miss that man and I’ll miss him forever. But even in the wake of his death, I am proud of that man. I look at what he did and though he may or may not know what his enthusiasm for immunotherapy incited, he started something beautiful and powerful — something that will resonate forever, that could save and change peoples’ lives.

RELATED: Cycle for Survival in Memory of Matthew Iaria

I will never worry that the kid didn’t have a legacy. He has the most beautiful legacy of all time. As a pioneer in GI cancer treatments at Cornell but also, as my man. He left behind me and I’m part of his legacy; I’m here to make sure it’s known, that people are aware of what he did: that he loved me intensely and fiercely and he sparked a revolution in the medical community regarding the usage of immunotherapy for esophageal cancer.

I’ll keep writing, babe. The world needs to know what you did… what we did.

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