When doctors diagnosed 18-year-old Michael Tatalovich with cancer last May, he decided to share his journey to recovery through provocative, stark and inspiring photos on Instagram.
“It was the perfect space to not only share the stark visual realities that I was going through,” the Henderson, Nevada, teen told TODAY.com. “But it was also a really great archival tool for me to look back on, in the future, to allow for chronological documentation.”
Tatalovich, a member of a Coronado High School volleyball squad that won state, league and regional championships in recent years, started experiencing hip pain in June 2012. When rest and physical therapy didn’t help, doctors recommended a biopsy that later revealed Ewing’s sarcoma, a kind of bone and soft-tissue cancer that subjected him to hip replacement surgery, dependency on a walker and a cane, and a year of chemotherapy.
“It’s one of those moments that doesn’t even feel real,” he said of his May 1, 2013, diagnosis. “The world seemed like it had stopped all at once, but at the same time, my mind was going a million miles a minute with questions about the future.”
Although his Instagram account served as a way to reveal his condition to his followers — now numbering more than 22,000 — the social-media outlet eventually became a raw and deeply personal first-person narrative of his bout with cancer.
After acclimating himself to early chemo treatments, he felt more comfortable expressing himself through humor. One selfie from last year shows him flashing a peace sign with the caption, “Straight #chemo chillin” with an additional “#ImACueBall” hashtag.
“It opened up the ability for me to embrace it,” he said. “It was a little bit of getting my mojo back.”
He wasn’t afraid to be serious, either. One picture, taken 10 months ago by photographer Kendall Finley-Jacob, “really hit home” for his followers: In it, Tatalovich is shirtless, bald from chemo treatments, and closing his eyes in front of a black backdrop.
“That was the essence of what I was really trying to do, with sharing my story on Instagram,” Tatalovich said. “It’s an unedited view of how scary a cancer patient can look, but also of a unique serenity — of finding the inner strength.”
Tatalovich said the rigors of rehabilitation and chemo prevented him from attending the fall semester of his senior year at Coronado High School. But homeschooling didn’t stop his Coronado classmates from electing him Homecoming King.
“I thought people [would be] like, ‘Out of sight, out of mind; Michael doesn’t even go to Coronado anymore,” he said. “So, it was really shocking to even get onto court, and then to be even elected king was even a greater surprise and shock. … October was the hardest month of chemo during the whole span, so, having that in the middle of that month was a really great morale booster.”
In addition to being featured last week on Instagram’s blog, Tatalovich has attracted a couple of famous fans, including follower Dot Major from the British electro-pop trio London Grammar; and Sejkko, a Portuguese photographer who wished him well in a comment on one of the cancer survivor’s photos. But another interaction had an entirely different effect on him.
“There was a kid from Tennessee who had just gotten diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma — very similar [to Ewing sarcoma] — and was asking me for some advice on how to get through it,” Tatalovich recalled. “But also, he told me that [the Instagram feed] was a positive beacon for him. So, it gets me emotional.”
Six months ago, Tatalovich had his final chemotherapy treatment and, of course, documented it on Instagram. Part of that caption reads, “Today marks the end of a long journey; for the past 10 months I have been constantly redefining my state of normalcy. This is no different; except now my normal will look a lot like everybody else's. Through this experience, I have learned a lot, including the strength that can come from a loving and supportive community. So for any of you who said kind words either to me, my family, or in private, I thank you.”
Last month, to mark the one-year anniversary of the surgery to remove the tumor from his left femur, he posted a photo of himself immediately following that surgery. As of this week, it’s accumulated about 6,000 Likes from Instagram users.
Now a freshman at the University of Texas, Tatalovich’s focus has shifted. These days, his hardest decision may be whether he’ll major in chemistry or pursue architecture instead.
“Going through a journey like this, where there’s a lot of hell to go through, but still a positive end, has distilled what life is about,” Tatalovich said. “You go through hell, and you have your good days, and you have your bad days, but those collective experiences make us who we are.”
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