Written by Jordan Barela, Editor-in-Chief
While most students were getting ready to take in the beach sun or catch up on Netflix over spring break, one VSU student graduated early.
Michael Cowger graduated cum laude with a double major in finance and economics on March 11.
The reason for his early graduation: Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a rare type of cancer that he is now battling at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
In December 2014, Michael went to the emergency room with what he thought was a heart attack. But it was more serious. He was then transferred to South Georgia Medical Center and an MRI scan confirmed that there was actually a large mass in his chest.
Michael had surgery in January to remove the mass. The surgeon confirmed that it was a cancerous tumor. After pathology tests, the tumor was found out to be a liposarcoma. A liposarcoma is a rare type of cancer that resembles fat cells when examined.
While recovering from the surgery, Michael began undergoing chemotherapy at SGMC. The cancer was found to have spread to his tailbone and vertebrae.
Because of the spread of the cancer, SGMC could not offer further effective treatment.
In October 2015, Michael began undergoing trial experiments at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Michael was officially diagnosed just before the start of the spring 2015 semester. It was his final semester before graduation.
Despite the surgery and treatment, Michael attended classes until it became too much of a burden.
Because of the immense strain on Michael, Dr. Attila Cseh, the Department Head of Langdale College’s Department of Economics and Finance, went to President Cecil Staton and talked about Michael getting his degree early. Dr. Staton agreed.
“It is a joy to have him in our classes,” Dr. Cseh said. “Students like Michael are the reasons professors fall in love with teaching, and students like him also make our job easier because with their work ethic, they set an example to their peers. The professors I have talked to all speak very highly of Michael for his performance in our classrooms and for being a very kind person. We are all humbled by his courage and his spirit in this fight.”
According to Michael’s father, Josh Cowger, Michael was kept semi in the dark about the early graduation. Convinced to come home for a quick visit, Michael was told about the graduation when he saw the cap and gown when he arrived home.
On March 11, the graduation kicked off. Michael gave a speech and opened by thanking President Staton and his staff for the ceremony.
He talked about his struggles with cancer, but added his humorous twist. Michael talked about Dr. Cseh going to Dr. Staton to urge him to graduate early.
“I assume that President Staton either immediately agreed, or was frightened by the head of his Economics and Finance Department standing on top of his desk, kicking his papers around,” Michael said. “I’m confident the first scenario is what actually took place, but I like the image of Dr. Cseh going full on ‘Exorcist’ [is what] I have in my mind right now.”
As his speech drew to a close, he thanked his family. He saved a special thanks for his girlfriend of several years, Liz Buchner.
“She has been by his side from the beginning, she moved to Houston with him, she works a fulltime job, all the while taking care of him and going to his doctor’s appointments with him,” Michael’s father said. “Liz is the peanut butter to his jelly.”
No stranger to overcoming struggle, Michael gave himself one more challenge. Michael decided to go through the ceremony without taking his pain medication.
“Michael wanted to be fully coherent that day,” Michael’s father said. “He did not take any of his pain meds before showing up to get his diploma.”
Once the ceremony was over, Michael immediately took his pain medicine. According to his father, Michael slept for more than 18 hours.
“He slept with a smile on his face and one hand on his diplomas the entire time,” Josh said. “He accomplished his most important goal.”
Michael is currently undergoing treatment in Houston. According to Josh, this is the last treatment available for Michael. He also said that if the treatment doesn’t work or eventually stops working, Michael will come home for the last time and spend the rest of his time with his family.
“You know the cliché about that guy that never met an enemy, never had an enemy, everybody that knows him as his friend, he’s that guy,” Josh said.