Resilience, flexibility and discipline are hallmark traits of both successful martial artists and of cancer survivors. Michael McAtee is both. The 2010 UNC graduate was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor during his junior year at UNC. Four years later, Michael is working at UNC Hospitals and teaching martial arts classes while pursuing his black belt.
He says, “I really didn’t know it at the time, but the aftermath, the recovery, was probably more difficult than the initial diagnosis of cancer and treatment. My tumor created a sensory-motor feedback gap in my right side. Signals from my right side to my brain come uninterrupted, but signals coming from my brain to my right side are interrupted.“
Michael, who was right-handed, became left-handed. “With the sensory-motor feedback gap, I couldn’t do basic things that most people take for granted like throwing a baseball or basketball or doing a jumping jack. It took away almost everything I was physically capable of doing, but when I found martial arts, I felt it was something I could do to regain muscle strength lost during post-surgery and radiation therapy.
“I started mixed martial arts in 2009. I first checked with Dr. David Morris, my radiation oncologist, since it is so physically challenging.. He said, ‘Yeah, you can do it. You’ll get your butt kicked, but you can do it.’
“My instructor, a medical student, helped me use the training as physical therapy. Punching, tapping, whatever you do with your hands has helped to almost reknit the synapses in my brain. Kung fu became a practical thing in recovery and in a self-defense situation.”
Michael is also relearning the guitar. “I can play slowly now, but not like I used to. Radiation therapy also affected my vocal cords, so I’m not able to sing. It’s still hard to talk about.” He had been a business major so that he could learn the business side of a music career, but changed to economics after he returned to school.
“My tumor was slow growing, but I didn’t know I had it for many years. It affected my learning ability. I was really good at subjects like math, and then all of a sudden I wasn’t. Through junior and senior high I had to take every math class twice. At UNC I had to reteach myself basic algebra to get through my classes and complete homework.”
When he’s not practicing or teaching martial arts, Michael serves Asian food in the UNC Hospitals Terrace Café. He enjoys his work because “I know what the patients are going through. I’ve been a patient and seen the other side. I wanted to do whatever I could to make what might be the worse possible day of their life a little better.
“Having cancer changes your perspective on life. You realize how short it is, how fragile it is. And you don’t want to be caught up doing things you don’t enjoy.” For now, Michael is enjoying his training for a black belt and his work at UNC where he hopes to secure a full-time position to pay off student loans more quickly.