Cancer survivor’s perspective changes

After a yearlong struggle with Ewing’s sarcoma, 18-year-old Michael Tatalovitch is in recovery from therapy with no signs of disease. And he’s gained a new perspective.

“When you get kicked to the ground and you can come up from it stronger than you were before,” he said, “I think it says a lot about determination.”

Ewing’s sarcoma is a relatively aggressive and rare pediatric bone cancer that occurs most often in white adolescents, according to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. As Tatalovitch’s case was one of only about 250 diagnosed in the United States last year, doctors had a tough time at first determining what caused the pain he was experiencing. A biopsy of his left femur made it clear.

“When I woke up from surgery,” he said, “I remember it just being weird that both of my parents were there on either side of me, and the surgeon was at the foot of the bed. They just looked so different; their facial expressions weren’t very familiar.”

He was diagnosed in May 2013. The cancer led to temporary paralysis and hip-replacement surgery, forcing Tatalovitch to use a wheelchair. He eventually transitioned to a walker and now uses a cane.

From the beginning of his diagnosis, Tatalovitch has adopted a different way of looking at the fragility of life around him.

“One of the weirdest things for me was that your whole world could change in a minute, but it’s just very strange that no one else’s life kind of stops,” he said. “You get wheeled out of the hospital room and all the nurses are going about their day, and everybody is still buzzing around.”

Tatalovitch began his first round of chemotherapy shortly after his diagnosis and had more than 30 weeks of treatment within a year. Since he was diagnosed, he has been very open about updating friends and family, using social media and posting photos of himself going through treatment.

“Instagram is a great way to have your memories archived chronologically,” he said. “When I look back on old photos … it’s a very strange duality of ‘I uploaded that photo, I know I took it, I know where I was’ — it’s associated with a memory, but it’s still very foreign.”

Tatalovitch became involved in photography during his freshman year of high school and was ranked sixth overall in a national Skills Photography Competition less than two years later. While receiving cancer treatment, he used Instagram photography as a creative outlet and to control what he shared with people close to him.

He said his experience as a cancer survivor has strengthened him as a person.

“This all has a larger meaning to it,” he said, “and there are things that I personally believe are in store for me that I would have never been able to do had I not gone through this. I very strongly believe, now especially, that positive thinking can manifest itself in reality in the tangible objects around us.”

A year after he was diagnosed, he finished his treatment as planned. He will need monthly check-ups. and after five years of negative scans will be considered cured.

He plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin, beginning this fall, to pursue environmental chemistry, and is philosophical about his ordeal.

“For the rest of my life, obviously, (surviving cancer) would be something that I’ve done,” he said, “but I don’t think any one characteristic should define a person.”