Libra with Cancer
Text by James McDonald
Photography by Kendall Finely
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 hard-pressed 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 stress-relieving 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 started school at the University of Texas at Austin. 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.
Originally published September 2014 in Hello Mr. issue 04.
James McDonald is an assistant editor at Out. He enjoys long discussions about Mary Queen of Scots, cheap airfare, and cake.
Michael Tatalovich is currently studying architecture at UT Austin, turning anything he can into an innuendo and caring for his Aloe Vera plant, Alice.