Before he turned 18, Michael Tatalovich did a few things. Among them: winning 6th place in a national photography competition, starting a promising volleyball career, and battling cancer.
At the age of 17, Michael was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma when doctors discovered a tumor in his femur that was eating away at his bone, a diagnosis that only around 200 people in the United States receive each year. In the months that followed, Michael underwent surgery to replace two-thirds of his femur with titanium and methyl methacrylate and endured two rigorous rounds of chemotherapy.
I knew that I didn’t want to just have me in this story. I didn’t want to keep it to myself.
Instead of retreating into himself during the painful and life-changing ordeal, which would have been a perfectly understandable response, Michael decided to use his favorite social media platform, Instagram, to document his struggle. What started as a way to use his love of photography to update his loved ones on his health became a personal photo journal with 23,000 supporters looking on.
“I knew that I didn’t want to just have me in this story,” says Michael, now a student at UT Austin. “I didn’t want to keep it to myself,” For him, the “creative expression and outlet was cathartic.”
Interspersed with typical shots of a high school kid hanging out with friends in his hometown of Henderson, Nevada, are photos of him sitting in a chemo chair; images taken just after surgery with an oxygen tube in his nose; and beautiful, artistic shots of him bald and shirtless, set against stark backgrounds and composed toward a striking visual effect.
Michael is now in recovery from therapy with no signs of the disease, but for a while, life was not kind to him. “Everything just tasted gross,” he says of how he felt during chemotherapy. “Living in my skin felt gross and just the natural taste in my mouth was off. It’s not fun by any means. But it’s over now.”
Living in my skin felt gross and just the natural taste in my mouth was off. It’s not fun by any means. But it’s over now.
The experience left lingering side effects, of course. One of the drugs he received could potentially thin out the walls of his heart over time, he has stay out of the sun because of his heightened susceptibility to UVA and UVB radiation, and his liver and kidney functions must be monitored closely because of the chemicals that were flushed through his urinary tract. He must be hyper aware of pains in his body, especially in his lungs and brain — places where the cancer could spread. Another side effect: he can never run or jump again.
“I don’t (think about it),” he says. “There’s no need to, really. That’s just a lot of undue anxiety and stress and I will cross that bridge when it comes.”
Throughout all of this, Michael has used Instagram as a tool for reflection and growth. He likes to go back and see how he looked and felt at particular moments of his life over the past year.
“I can go back years, even, and see how I was before diagnosis and during and now,” he says.
Michael’s illness has given him perspective and the unyielding wisdom he brings to everything he does.
“One of my favorite things is just at sunset, or if I’m awake at sunrise, to just stand in one place and listen to the leaves rustle,” he says. “Even if it’s loud city noises, that’s still a reaffirmation that I’m alive and I’m here and I’m doing these things.”
He’s also gained humility, noting how fortunate he’s been to live in a part of the world with adequate treatment for those who need it.
And finally, Michael was forced to reassess who he wanted to keep close to his heart, a lesson many don’t learn until much later than the age of 18.
“Life is short and there’s no time to waste on people that are draining consistently,” he explains. Instead, Michael strictly focuses on the relationships that “refill his batteries.” This realization is the idea behind the #friendsandwalls hashtag he uses on Instagram, where he posts a portrait of a friend and explains why they are special to him.
“I like that it keeps it funny but also a little bit serious and sentimental,” Michael says.
Posting portraits of others is the direction he wants his Instagram feed to go in, where the camera is turned away from him and onto others in his life.
“I like to reflect on some of the more nuanced parts of my day,” Michael says. “Now that I’ve shared the thick of my journey, I like to now reflect on people around me.”
Having just moved to Austin to start college, Michael is already finding plenty to reflect on in this new chapter of his life, and it’s evident in his feed. He plans to apply to the architecture school at UT: “If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” he says, displaying yet more wisdom beyond his years.
“I always knew I was going to go to college and I was going to get my degree,” he says. “When I got diagnosed, I knew that wasn’t going to stop me… it was a hiccup but I know I’ll carry on.’”
Next, Michael plans to participate in the Texas 4000, a bike ride from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska in support of cancer research and awareness.
Here’s hoping we’re treated to a selfie at the finish line.
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