Libra with Can­cer

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - James Mcdon­ald

We all know how chal­leng­ing high school can be. The petty drama, pu­berty, aca­demic pres­sure–it isn’t al­ways easy to hit the right groove. But by his ju­nior year, Michael Tat­alovich was fi­nally on the path he had hoped for. Newly out to his fam­ily and close friends, at the top of his class, with a job he loved and a cov­eted spot on the school’s volleyball team. Look­ing ahead, the ac­tive 17-year-old was ready to take on a chal­leng­ing se­nior year, strid­ing to­ward vale­dic­to­rian and his pick of col­leges. Then he found out how quickly things can change.

In May 2013, after un­der­go­ing what doc­tors thought was a rou­tine biopsy, Michael awoke from gen­eral anes­the­sia to learn that the pain in his hip was Ewing’s Sar­coma, a rare form of pe­di­atric bone can­cer. He’d gone in more con­cerned over the school­work pil­ing up than the risk that some­thing might be se­ri­ously wrong – the chance of can­cer was less than 5%, he’d been told.

“There was dis­be­lief and sad­ness,” he says. “Anx­i­ety about the fu­ture and re­lief from fi­nally know­ing what was wrong. Op­ti­mism about my prog­no­sis, yet spi­ralling con­fu­sion about the ways things could go wrong. Anger at fate, yet grate­ful that we had caught it when we did. I was com­ing out from gen­eral anes­the­sia, so add to all of that a layer of hazi­ness and nau­sea.”

In the ini­tial shock, Michael’s con­flict­ing feel­ings almost can­celled each other out. There were a few mo­ments, he re­calls, of quite peace­ful men­tal si­lence. Then the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion came rush­ing back. He lurched for­ward and threw up.

Be­fore leav­ing the hos­pi­tal, Michael (@mtat95) up­loaded a pic­ture to In­sta­gram of his heav­ily ban­daged hip with a cap­tion ex­plain­ing his di­ag­no­sis. At the time, it was just the eas­i­est way to let his friends know what was hap­pen­ing. Over the next few days, how­ever, he be­gan to re­al­ize the po­ten­tial sig­nif­i­cance of th­ese posts. He de­cided to use so­cial me­dia to doc­u­ment his ex­pe­ri­ence fight­ing can­cer–and to do it as openly and hon­estly as pos­si­ble.

From the be­gin­ning, he knew it wasn’t go­ing to be pretty. The biopsy re­vealed that the can­cer had eaten away much of his left fe­mur, leav­ing him wheel­chair bound. Doc­tors be­gan his chemo­ther­apy treat­ment just six days later, which car­ried with it the prom­ise of count­less hours spent in the hos­pi­tal. But he was com­mit­ted to his plan. Noth­ing was cen­sored. Michael would bare all. Over the next ten months, he posted hun­dreds of pho­tos and tweets about his treat­ment, with all its ups and downs, and the painful toll it took on his body. His graphic yet very real and oc­ca­sion­ally hu­mor­ous posts gained a fol­low­ing that spread far beyond his im­me­di­ate cir­cle of friends and fam­ily.

Michael ad­mits that it wasn’t al­ways easy to be so pub­lic, not only be­cause of un­ex­pected set­backs–like an emer­gency hip re­place­ment at week 11–but also be­cause he had to rec­on­cile his mother to the project. She was wor­ried about peo­ple see­ing how sick he looked. The pho­to­graph that up­set her most showed him gaunt and frail stand­ing shirt­less against a black back­ground.

Eyes closed and bald, scars are clearly vis­i­ble on his sunken chest. “Mom, that’s how I look,” he told her. “This is what I am right now, and look­ing and be­ing sick comes with the ter­ri­tory.”

When asked why his mo­ti­va­tion for doc­u­ment­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence was so im­por­tant, Michael is hard­pressed to pick just one rea­son. Pho­tog­ra­phy had long been a pas­sion, but his treat­ment meant he was un­able to or­ches­trate full-fledged pho­to­shoots. By cap­tur­ing his fight, solely on his iPhone, he was able to main­tain a cre­ative out­let, an es­cape that be­came in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as the ef­fects of chemo­ther­apy be­gan to show phys­i­cally. He left the wheel­chair, but found him­self com­pletely re­liant on a cane. His doc­tors told him that his type of hip re­place­ment meant he’d never be able to run or jump again–which Michael re­al­ized ended his volleyball ca­reer and even ruled out the stress­re­liev­ing jogs he’d be­come ac­cus­tomed to.

The drive be­hind his doc­u­men­ta­tion was the de­sire to be truth­ful about his ex­pe­ri­ence. His mother’s con­cerns were un­der­stand­able: what mother would want such per­ma­nent and pub­lic re­minders of her son’s suf­fer­ing? But Michael saw it as a form of cathar­sis. Scrolling through his In­sta­gram and Twit­ter gives in­sight into his jour­ney and re­minds him of what he went through.

“It forced me to face the facts head on, and helped me in the long run,” he ex­plains. “There’s no gain in hid­ing any­thing, from your­self or oth­ers … I think when the whole ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t pol­ished over, it helps peo­ple re­late more.”

Hol­ly­wood tends to ro­man­ti­cize chemo­ther­apy, and he didn’t want to have his ex­pe­ri­ence lumped in with peo­ple’s pre­con­ceived no­tions about what was hap­pen­ing to him. Un­der­stand­ably, it be­came in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for Michael to re­late to his peers. Not only was he deal­ing with much more se­ri­ous con­cerns, but he knew his phys­i­cal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion was hard for many to see.

By keep­ing a chan­nel open be­tween his per­sonal bat­tle and the wider world, he says he was able to

bridge some of those gaps. And by un­der­scor­ing the se­ri­ous­ness of his treat­ment with hu­mor­ous cap­tions like “#wheelchair­swag” and “straight #chemo chillin,” he re­minded oth­ers that he was the same guy he’d al­ways been, while also mak­ing what he was go­ing through more ac­ces­si­ble.

By shar­ing a true tes­ti­mony to his ex­pe­ri­ence– hard as it may be to watch at times–he al­lowed the hu­man­ity of can­cer treat­ment to shine through. When hard­ship finds us, it’s easy to curl up into our­selves. More so, the idea that it’s some­how ad­mirable to suf­fer in si­lence can drive many to think that our friends and fol­low­ers don’t want to see our pain.

De­spite that, Michael’s been ap­proached by count­less peo­ple who have them­selves been af­fected by can­cer, or know some­one that has. The high­light, he says, was get­ting called a “badass” by a 14-year-old pa­tient with whom he con­tin­ues to share his ex­pe­ri­ence while do­ing what he can to keep her spir­its high.

Less than a year and a half after his world was turned on its head, Michael is now a fresh­man at the Univer­sity of Austin-Texas. In re­cov­ery from chemo­ther­apy with no signs of dis­ease, his In­sta­gram and Twit­ter serve as an in­cred­i­ble ar­chive of a young man’s vic­tory over can­cer. It was a harder jour­ney than ex­pected, with his hip-re­place­ment lim­it­ing his mo­bil­ity, and the ef­fects of his chemo­ther­apy leav­ing him vul­ner­a­ble to heart, liver, and kid­ney dis­ease. But through it all, not only did he stick by his decision to be open, he did so with­out los­ing his sense of self. This “Libra with can­cer,” as his Twit­ter bio goes, is proof that be­ing true to the dark side of can­cer treat­ment doesn’t mean that a shadow eclipses the light – if any­thing, it makes the light all the more bril­liant.

photo by Emma Czerwinski

hello mr. – is­sue 04

Photo by Ken­dall Finely

Photo by Santina Gior­dano

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