Dad-to-Be Dies of 'Extraordinarily Rare' Cancer 3 Weeks After First ER Visit

·11 min read

When New York couple Matthew and Graziella "Gracie" Robertson found out that they were pregnant with their first child, a baby girl, shortly after getting married in September 2021, they were overjoyed.

"The second I got the positive test, Matthew was out there looking at little baby shoes and baby clothes," Gracie tells PEOPLE. "He was so, so excited to be a dad."

But as the baby's due date drew closer, Matthew started to feel like something was off. In May, he started complaining that he felt tired all the time and that his back was hurting, but Gracie says it "was all easily explained away."

"We would go on trips, and he was building things for the baby," she says. "So of course you're going to be tired, and of course your back's going to hurt."

At the time, the couple couldn't have predicted that what Matthew was actually dealing with was epithelioid angiosarcoma, a rare cancer affecting the blood vessels. It eventually caused his death at age 30 on June 6, just three weeks after his first emergency room visit and five weeks before his baby girl's due date.

"I feel sad that she won't get to have her dad the way that she deserves," says Gracie, 29. "I'm sad that he doesn't get to be the girl dad that he was so excited about being. I know she'll bring so much joy and happiness into our family during this time of heartache, but it's bittersweet because he should be here."

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Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Courtesy of Fragale-Robertson Family Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

By sharing Matthew's story, Gracie wants to raise awareness about epithilioid angiosarcoma and encourage people to go in for their annual physicals, which Matthew made sure to go to shortly after he started feeling off in May. After his physical, his blood work came back showing elevated liver enzymes and an elevated white blood cell count.

Though the counts were higher than normal, "we didn't think too much into it and neither did his doctor," says Gracie, who works in University Support Services at St. George's University. "His doctor said, 'It's probably nothing, but let's get the blood work redrawn.'"

When the results from the redraw came back, they showed even higher counts for his liver enzymes and white blood cells. But his doctor still wasn't too concerned.

"He said, 'If you start having a fever or if you start feeling sick, go to the emergency room," Gracie recalls.

In the days after his doctor visit, Matthew started having night sweats, and he kept feeling more and more tired. One morning, he woke up and said, "I think I should just go to the ER," Gracie says.

There, Matthew underwent a CAT scan and an abdominal ultrasound. The tests found lesions on his liver, spleen and back. "The doctors were like, 'We think it's cancer, and you need to do something about this,'" Gracie says.

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Since doctors thought there may also be lesions on Matthew's pancreas, they directed them to a pancreatic cancer specialist. After a blood marker test, the specialist ruled out pancreatic cancer and thought he might have lymphoma. She recommended a liver biopsy, so they got one done the next day.

As they awaited the results from the biopsy at home, Matthew kept getting weaker.

"He couldn't sleep, he couldn't eat and he felt super bloated," Gracie says. "He couldn't do anything."

It was then that Gracie suggested that they find out the sex of their baby on the way in an effort to cheer him up.

"He was getting really depressed, so I said, 'You know what? Let's just have some good news just us, and we'll find out the gender of the baby,'" she recalls. "We found out on our own, just us two, about our little girl. He was so excited because the whole time anybody would ask, he would say, '60 percent I want a girl, 40 percent I want a boy.' But he would tell me secretly that he really, really wanted a girl. He was so excited about being a girl dad."

Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Courtesy of Fragale-Robertson Family Matthew and Gracie Robertson

Despite their joy, Matthew's condition continued to decline. On May 31, Gracie decided to take him back to the ER because he wasn't "drinking or eating anything."

"When we got there, he was immediately rushed into the ICU for acute renal failure," she says. "They put him on a round of hemodialysis, which is just three or four hours of just heavy duty dialysis. Then they switched him to CRT dialysis, which is a continuous and slower method of dialysis."

Since they were still waiting on the results from the liver biopsy, doctors couldn't immediately figure out how to diagnose him.

"He would get better and then get worse — it was really a rollercoaster," Gracie says. "Doctors didn't even think he was going to make it through that first night. But he did, and he fought so hard."

Even after Matthew was intubated, Gracie says she "didn't lose hope." Eventually, though, his body couldn't keep up.

"The doctors were taking every extreme life saving measure they could — they even shocked him four times because of his blood pressure dropping — but they said his liver had become more tumor than liver," she says. "His body was just being beaten up."

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When the results from his liver biopsy came back, he was diagnosed with epithelioid angiosarcoma, which often originates in deep tissue.

"Sarcoma means fleshy growth, and angio means blood vessels," says Dr. Charles A. Forscher, MD, medical director of Cedars Sinai Los Angeles' Sarcoma Program. "So an angiosarcoma is a malignant tumor, or cancer, that's trying to be a blood vessel, but it's malignant, so it's not doing it right."

Angiosarcomas can start in the liver, spleen, heart, breasts and bone and often "occur without a known predisposing entity," Dr. Forscher says. "They can be very difficult to diagnose."

Dr. Forscher, who did not treat Robertson, says that epithelioid angiosarcoma is "extraordinarily rare."

"Sarcomas make up one percent of tumors in people," he says. "There are about 15,000 soft tissue sarcomas a year in the United States, and angiosarcomas are maybe around two or three percent of that."

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While there are chemotherapy drugs that have been utilized to treat angiosarcomas, the benefits tend to be "short lived," says Dr. Forscher.

"These tumors can be highly aggressive," he says. "The ones that are in the organs tend to not do well."

Given the dire prognosis, doctors recommended taking Matthew off the breathing machine, and Gracie agreed.

"I was in bed laying with him as he took his last breath," Gracie says. "I said, 'Thank you so much for fighting so hard. All the doctors are so impressed with you. You put up a hell of a fight. You can relax now.' I hope that comforted him."

Through it all, Gracie says Matthew never lost an ounce of love for her.

"I stayed by his bedside all day and every night, but one night when his mom came, she told me to go home and get some rest because I'm pregnant," she says. "She was like, 'Don't worry, I got this.' I told Matthew, 'I love you, baby. I'll be back in the morning.' Even with the tube in his mouth, he blew me a kiss.'"

Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Courtesy of Fragale-Robertson Family Matthew and Gracie Robertson

The couple's love story began when Gracie swiped right on Matthew on Bumble in October 2018, just a week after he moved from his home state of Nebraska to Long Island, New York, for a job opportunity working in sales and advertising for AAA.

"It all happened by fate," Gracie says. "I happened to be visiting my friends from college who lived in Islip, which is 10 minutes away from where Matt lived. My friend said, 'Let me see the dating apps, what're they like?' So, he took my phone, and he was like, 'All right, I'm going to do it for you. I'm going to be matchmaker.' He swiped right on Matthew."

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After they matched, Gracie reached out to him, and they started talking.

"It happened super fast and super naturally," she says. "We decided to meet up and get coffee a few days after talking and then after that first coffee date, we had our second date and then our third date. It was kind of like, 'This is it.'"

Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Photography by Alfonso Matthew and Gracie Robertson

Matthew officially asked Gracie to be his girlfriend while on a date at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

"He gave me a white rose and said, 'It means new beginnings,'" she recalls. "He was excited for our new beginnings."

When the two moved into an apartment on Long Island together in September 2019, Matthew once again surprised Gracie with a bouquet of white roses. "That was our thing," she says.

After getting engaged, the couple bought their first home together on Long Island in November 2020. They said "I Do" on Sept. 5, 2021.

"On the morning of our wedding when I was getting ready, he again orchestrated this whole thing with my sister where each of the bridesmaids hand delivered me a white rose and a little note about what he loves about me and why he's excited to marry me," Gracie says. "So then I had a bouquet of a dozen white roses and a dozen little notes from him."

Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Photography by Alfonso Matthew and Gracie Robertson

"It's very common after someone passes that all of a sudden they turn into a saint," Gracie says. "But you really couldn't say anything bad about Matthew. I keep saying this, but you see couples on social media and you think, 'What are they really like? No one's that perfect.' But we were that perfect."

"Even if we were angry at each other, we would be laughing and kissing within a couple of minutes," she continues. "He had this thing where if we started a discussion, and we felt it getting tense, he would make us touch our feet together. How do you get mad when someone's tickling your feet with their toes? We really were that sickeningly perfect, in love couple on social media and behind closed doors."

Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Photography by Alfonso Matthew and Gracie Fragale

Gracie says that she and Matthew didn't need anything but each other to have fun. In fact, their favorite date was going to Costco.

"We loved going to Costco," she says with a laugh. "He would put on the TV, and we'd watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, like an old married couple. I always called him a giant golden retriever who forgets it's not a little puppy dog anymore because he would just want to lay on top of me. You could always find us cuddled on a couch."

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Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Courtesy of Fragale-Robertson Family

To honor Matthew's legacy, Gracie plans to give their baby girl the initials MJR.

"His big thing was his initials: MJR," she says. "He had everything monogrammed MJR, so I knew I wanted a J middle name."

Even though Matthew's gone, "we are going to make sure that she knows every single detail about her dad," says Gracie. "He was truly incredible."

Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale
Matthew Robertson and Gracie Fragale

Photography by Alfonso Matthew and Gracie Robertson

As of publishing, the GoFundMe set up by Gracie's family to help her and their baby has reached more than $135,000.

"I'm so grateful for my family support and the outpouring of love and support from family, friends and strangers," Gracie says. "It means so much. It's hard in this moment because I just want him back, and there's nothing that anybody can do or say that will take that pain away, but it's nice knowing how much he impacted so many people's lives. "