A Year of Life

In 2008, Michael McAtee was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer on his cerebellum. He has been fighting ever since. He was actually fighting cancer even before he was diagnosed on a Friday morning in March. On that day, he had a name for the thing that was making him feel sick. It was called a medulloblastoma and it was keeping him from thinking clearly, remember things, and operating the right side of his body correctly. What followed was two surgeries, six weeks of daily radiation, almost every medical test you can think of, and many hours in a MRI machine. The surgeries were the easy part, only ten days between them. A small football team’s worth of people came together to support him. The radiation came later and was much harder. The therapy was basically mild radiation poisoning and caused daily vomiting. Meditation was used to keep his brain from swelling. Ironically, it caused his face to swell instead. It was mostly his family and close friends that helped him through those days. He was 24 years old at the time and at the end of his junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Due to a technicality, he was actually kicked out because of his cancer. He had to petition the dean and reapply with all the fees associated. It was very important that he get back in and remain a full-time student. Otherwise, he would lose his medical insurance that was paying for the recovery care that he was still getting. He got accepted back just in time for the fall semester.

The cancer made college exceptionally difficult. It left him with some nerve damage in what his doctors referred to as a sensory motor feedback gap. As he explains it,

            “Think of your body’s nervous system as like a circuit board and your brain is a central hub where signals go in and out. Now, signals that go from the right side of my body to my brain are uninterrupted. They work fine and it’s all normal. However, signals going from my brain to my right side are hindered. There’s a small delay and that difference in timing can be a huge deal depending on what I’m doing.”

It made for performing simple tasks in a timely fashion impossible. He had to switch to writing with his left hand just to finish exams. Note taking was no longer an option as he couldn’t do it fast enough. So he would sit in the very front and use an audio recorder. Even his typing was severely slowed as he had to do it one handed. Unfortunately, his difficulties didn’t stop with the sensory motor feedback gap.

            The combination of the brain tumor and the radiation therapy caused low grade amnesia. He couldn’t recall most of the first 23 years of his life. Having amnesia changed his major and reduced the number of subjects he could study. It also greatly increased the amount of time that he had to study.

                        “TV and movies almost never get amnesia right. You don’t wake up one day and audibly wonder who you are. It’s your ability to either recall or retain memory that’s damaged. Basically, you don’t know what you’ve forgotten until you’re face with it. You don’t know that you’ve forgotten your own name until someone asks you. So I quickly found out that most of my pervious schooling was gone. Stuff like history was out. I had to reteach myself some math in order to take derivatives in my economics homework. I had to work extremely hard just to pass with a C. Like 10 times more effort than your top of the class A student.”

            In May, 2010, he graduated from UNC with a degree in Economics. It was two years after he was diagnosed. The same issues that made college difficult also made working difficult. While in school he had to depend a great deal on student loans and amassed over $15,000. It took nine months but he eventually got a job at a local hospital. It wasn’t great but it had the medical insurance that he needed. Utilizing what he had learned in college, he was able to live off of the $1,300 he took home each month after taxes and benefits. He even paid off $1,000 of his student loans one year. This stopped however, when he received the bill for just one of his yearly medical checkups. Co-insurance and deductible combined to be about $1,000. He was back to where he started. He worked at the hospital for five years and left because he never really advanced. Also, the government made it possible for him to get his own affordable health insurance. Before that, having had cancer meant a reasonable health insurance policy could only be obtained through an employer.

            When he left the hospital job, he went straight into running a martial arts business full-time. It actually paid less than his hospital job but had far more potential. It allowed him to do more of what he has been doing since he finished treatment. It allowed him to help people.

                        “I’ve participated in serval 5ks to benefit cancer charities. I’ve also taken part in Relay for Life at UNC each year since 2009. At one point I was helping to feed patients’ family members at the hospital through a program called Kung Food. I started holding annual cancer fundraisers through my martial arts school. Whenever I can, I try to give to charities. I have a list of like nine of them. (Links and descriptions of these will be posted below.) I really like helping people with what I have. Right now, that’s a martial arts school. Doing martial arts was very beneficial for me and my recovery. I get to improve on what I went through and make it available to others.”              

            It hasn’t been easy. He’s been living on $1,300 a month for a decade now. He still has $15,000 in student loans. He still sees the doctor every year. He defeated the cancer disease years ago with the help of many family and friends. Financial though, he’s still fighting the cancer costs. He has had help from family and friends, but ten years is a long time to fight. Life is too short to let cancer win by any means. $15,000 is the amount of his loans. It is also about the amount that he lives on each year.

                        “I’m not asking for much. I just want to dig out of this hole, but I need a bigger shovel to do that. Imagine all that you could do if you didn’t have to worry about finances for a year. My late grandfather told me that, “You can do anything any other man can as long as you try hard enough.” But there are some things that you cannot do alone. Donate. Help me, help others. If everybody made life better for the person next to them, this world would be awesome!”



Blood:Water - www.bloodwater.org

Supplies clean water and sanitation for people in Africa.

Hands & Feet - www.handsandfeetproject.org

Supports Haitian orphans.

1 in 9 - www.1in9.com

It’s a breast cancer charity that helps diagnosed patients.

American Cancer Society - www.cancer.org

Relay for Life is their big fundraiser.

UNC Lineberger Cancer Center - unclineberger.org

This was the place that did all Michael’s treatment and care.

Creative Ministries - creativeministries.org

They minister and help people all across the globe. Michael went with them to Africa twice and England once.

Campus Christian Fellowship - campuschristianfellowship.org

“I was with them throughout college. They kinda focus more on helping others than increasing their own numbers.” – Michael

UNC Library - library.unc.edu

“People gotta read.” – Michael

Duke Cancer Institute - www.dukecancerinstitute.org

“Cancer doesn’t pick a side. It’s against everyone.” – Michael
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Michael McAtee 
Durham, NC

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