Meet the UT-Austin student and cancer survivor who just did a 70-day charity bike ride
Michael Tatalovich describes the years leading up to his junior year of high school as, in one word, normal. He was a good student who took AP classes and played volleyball year-round. He had good friends and described himself as “very healthy.”
But in March that year, everything changed.
Tatalovich experienced an unknown pain in his left hip that left various doctors confused. While many at first attributed the pain to a potential volleyball injury, Tatalovich later found out that he had Stage 2 Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. The next year, the now 20-year-old underwent chemotherapy and various surgeries that eventually left him wheelchair-bound.
“I had no control anymore, and that was very hard,” Tatalovich tells USA TODAY College.
Tatalovich is now cancer-free and is an incoming junior and architecture major at the University of Texas at Austin. Originally from Henderson, Nevada, Tatalovich knew he wanted to give back to cancer survivors like himself or those currently battling the illness. He did that by joining Texas 4000, a leadership program that takes an annual summer bike ride from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska to raise both money and awareness for cancer and supporting research.
This summer’s riders took one of three different routes to Alaska, but reunited in Canada during the final 10 days of their trip.
Over 60 Texas 4000 riders — including Tatalovich — recently returned from their 70-day bike trip to Alaska. Tatalovich spoke with USA TODAY College about his personal story as a cancer survivor, the hardest part of biking over 80 miles a day, and his experiences meeting others battling cancer.
USA TODAY College: How would you describe Texas 4000 to a complete stranger?
Texas 4000 is a leadership development program and annual charity bike ride that involves 18 months of training. That involves community service, fundraising and physical training which eventually culminates into a bike ride from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska. The goal of the trip is to fundraise for cancer research and cancer support services, but basically (Texas 4000) is a way for regular college students to become cancer fighters in a really meaningful and impactful way.
Can you tell me a bit of your personal story as a cancer survivor?
When I was 17 years old in my junior year of high school, I started to notice pain in my left hip. I took some time off of it and my hip got better for a while, but then it got worse. I had over 30 CT scans and MRI’s, and doctors could see that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what it was. One day I was swimming and I heard a crack. I went to the ER and I met a surgeon who really wanted to do a biopsy. On May 1, 2013, I had the biopsy done, and they found tumor cells that were consistent with Ewing’s sarcoma, a pediatric bone cancer.
After I was told I had cancer, a lot of things changed. I was in a wheelchair because the tumor had eaten so much of the bone that my leg couldn’t support itself anymore. I lost my mobility independence and I had to get homeschooled. There were a lot of very rapid changed in a short period of time.
The next 11 weeks after the diagnosis were spent in chemo. A few months later, I had surgery done where they took out the top half of my left femur and they put in a titanium insert, so I have a nice 11-inch scar on my left thigh. From there, I moved from a wheelchair, onto a walker, and then onto a cane while doing 26 more weeks of chemo, and I concluded on March 14, 2014.
What was your trip to Alaska like?
We left on June 3 from Austin and my route to Alaska went through the west Texas desert and then up through Las Vegas. We passed through Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Oregon, Washington, Vancouver and British Columbia before making it to Anchorage.
On my route, you’re in the desert for almost three weeks, and a lot of people aren’t used to that dry heat. I thought it was good to have that experience early on because it forced us to be really uncomfortable early on. Once we got to California and the weather was nice and we saw more people, we felt as though we really earned it.
I was also on the program team. Whenever we go through certain cities, we try to give a program where we talk about cancer prevention and where people can get help if they get diagnosed with cancer. We have members from Texas 4000 that share personal stories that align with one of the three pillars: hope, knowledge and charity. I talked about about hope and recounted my personal battle with cancer. It was good to talk about it and live some of those memories, and every time I told my story it became less and less painful.
Were there any special moments that impacted you during your ride?
One that really stands out happened in Las Vegas. This place is also really special to me because my family’s here and this is where I got treated. One one of our rest days I visited one of the places I got treated, Children’s Specialty Center. There I saw one of the social workers who knew me back when I was a patient and wanted me to meet some of the kids going through the same battles I went though. I met a 12-year-old boy named Hayden who also had bone cancer. We were joking around and having a really good time, and afterwards the social worker came up to me and told me that this was the first time Hayden has smiled and laughed during treatment.
What was the hardest part of riding from Texas to Alaska?
It’s very physically demanding, but I’ve been active most of my life, so I was prepared for the physical part. The one thing I wasn’t ready for was living out of a suitcase and always being on the go. It was also hard to spend so many days with the same people while trying to balance time for yourself. However, I learned a lot about how I interact and how other people interact, and I hope I gained a lot of perspective on interpersonal relationships that I can take with me.
Why is being in Texas 4000 important to you?
This summer, I talked to so many people and I got to see how they’ve been affected by cancer. This organization helped me to refocus and learn that it’s not just about me. I learned that everyone has a story and everyone has been affected by cancer, and listening to others gave me a lot of perspective.
To donate to Texas 4000 and find more information about each rider, Texas4000.org.
Written by Alexander Samuels
See original article here.