Among all the catchy and creative designs Fresno State graduates used to adorn their caps, Matt Tobin’s in particular was decorated with quite the powerful message: “Not today cancer.”
Eight months ago, Tobin wasn’t sure if he’d live long enough to make it to Fresno State’s graduation.
And if he did, would he be able to walk?
A tumor had grown on his spine, robbing Tobin of his ability to walk and causing so much pain up and down his body that he could barely sleep.
But there he was Saturday at the Save Mart Center, part of Fresno State’s largest class in school history with more than 6,200 students meeting requirements, and walking on stage to receive his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering — and with already plenty of “real world” experience.
“Not today cancer, it means I’m not going to let it take my moment,” Tobin said. “I’ve worked really hard to get here.”
University officials said about 62 percent of the graduating students in the class of 2019 are first-generation students whose parents didn’t receive bachelor’s degrees. Among them, almost 49 percent are underrepresented minority students.
Then there are graduates like Tobin, who has had to overcome his own personal difficulty to reach the ceremonial stage.
Tobin was diagnosed with peripheral t-cell lymphoma at the end of March, following a month of not being able to walk pain-free or without using crutches.
Doctors said he was in danger of becoming paralyzed. Or maybe worse.
“I think the hardest part for Matt and for all of us was not knowing what was causing all of his pain,” said Andreina Torres, Tobin’s girlfriend. “We thought maybe it was an injury he got at the gym.
“We definitely were not thinking cancer. That’s not something you ever want to hear. But at least now we knew and he could get treated properly.”
Tobin spent five days in the hospital and underwent five rounds of radiation to reduce the size of the tumor.
All the while, he still had class assignments and school projects to complete if he wanted to graduate in May.
He’d already become tired of going to school after taking four years at the junior college level and three years at Fresno State, and wanted to avoid an eighth year of school at all cost.
But if his health and school work wasn’t stressful enough to deal with, Tobin also found out 10 days before he was diagnosed with cancer that his grandfather had died.
“Everything was starting to pile up my last semester,” Tobin said. “It was a pretty rough go.
“Definitely dealt with some depression. I just tried to push the negative thoughts in the back of my mind and not focus on them.”
Tobin did regain his ability to walk pain-free on the day he was released from the hospital, offering immediate hope he’d be cured.
As professors found out about Tobin’s medical condition, he was given an extension on his assignments, which eased some of his stress.
Tobin just turned in a couple of his final projects the night before graduation.
“He’s been through one hell of a ride trying to graduate,” his girlfriend Torres said.
Following graduation, Tobin is expected to become a full-time employee as an engineer at his current job with the Flat Iron Corporation in Selma. They offered him a full-time job last summer contingent on him graduating.
Tobin still has medical procedures to attend. He must complete five more rounds of chemotherapy, including one on Wednesday. He had his first chemo session three weeks ago.
Once chemo treatment is completed, Tobin must head to Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto for a bone marrow transplant. “Definitely not cleared yet,” Tobin said.
For now, Tobin just wanted to enjoy the moment of graduating. So much so that he participated in two ceremonies Saturday.
He attended the early morning session for Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering, then the university-wide ceremony in the afternoon so Tobin could also say he graduated with his girlfriend.
Torres earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.
From Tobin’s physical pain to the couple’s sleep deprivation and stress, their final semester at Fresno State was anything but easy.
But together, Tobin and Torres made it and got their degrees.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Matt and all that he’s gone through to get to this point,” Torres said.
Added Tobin: “For me to be here and be finished and done, and say that I graduated from Fresno State, that’s a big accomplishment for me. And it’s going to push me even further in everything else I deal with.
“‘Not today, cancer. Not today.’ ”