Cancer is a sickness that is likely to affect everyone at some point in their lives. Be it a family member, a close friend or a co-worker, cancer does not play favorites. Ten years ago, cancer rattled the life of Michael McAtee at the young age of 24, when an MRI scanner found a tumor in McAtee’s brain roughly the size of a golf ball. Shortly after, McAtee was forced to withdraw from UNC, where he was studying economics, as his GPA fell from a 3.97 to a 1.5 due to the pervasive effects of the cancer. Located on his brain’s cerebellum, the tumor caused a sensory motor feedback gap that resulted in McAtee’s entire right side becoming numb, his right arm losing feeling and his hand rendered incapable of accomplishing basic tasks. McAtee’s health insurance covered visits to a physical therapy specialist for a time, but eventually, he said, he maxed out his PT visits.
Since 2010, McAtee has been teaching at Tactical Kung Fu & MMA, located off of Garrett Road in Durham, N.C. TKFMMA classes cover stick and knife fighting, boxing, grappling, self-defense and cardio within a range of practices such as kung fu, jiu jitsu and kenpo. “In a street fight, you don’t win, you just survive,” says McAtee. As a survivor of a rare brain cancer (medulloblastoma) himself, he draws a relationship between fighting cancer and self-defense.
People like like Loni Bonanno have made McAtee's martial arts business worthwhile to him. Bonanno first came to TKFMMA three years ago, seeking physical therapy shortly after she was hit by a car while walking across a street at night. Hers has been a story of endurance and resilience, much like McAtee's own story of surviving cancer. "This place attracts broken people," he said. "I got a lot of broken people here."
Some days are slower than others at TKFMMA. Despite fluctuating enrolment numbers for his weekly classes, McAtee works a 40-hour week with a smile on his face. Since he opened his martial arts facility in 2009, McAtee admits the business should have closed numerous times. "But," he said, "I've kept it open for the people I love."
Despite a history of challenges and the life-altering event of a cancer diagnosis during his undergraduate career at UNC, McAtee does not retire his smile. McAtee has accepted that cancer is "the ultimate conversation killer," so he's taken up the task of finding humor in dark places. "It's important to enjoy the process," he says. "If you're not having fun, you're not learning."
In a typical week, McAtee will rarely leave his workspace. Whether he's picking up T-shirts and gear for his students or running to the bank to pay rent for the space, most of what he does on a daily basis revolves around moving the business forward. TKFMMA is a one-man operation, making McAtee a full-time teacher, manager, accountant and social media expert. But he doesn't treat it so much as a job as an opportunity to serve. "It's not about me, it's about all these other people,” he says.
Diagnosed on a Friday, admitted into emergency surgery by the following Tuesday, McAtee recounts. An event that altered the course of his life, forever. In the middle of April, while other students overworked their brains in preparation for exams and end-of-semester busywork, McAtee surrendered his brain to a surgeon with fingers crossed, knowing that every moment leading up to the surgery could have been his last. Affixed to his cerebellum, the tumor began to systematically shut down motor neurons, affecting muscles throughout his body— including the the cardiac muscles that pump blood through the heart.
While most people who work 40-hour weeks can't wait to clock out and head home after a long day, McAtee says he's grateful for the full week. "I have to work incredibly hard to do simple things that other people take for granted," he says. Faced with almost losing his life, McAtee now finds value and joy in whatever challenges he comes up against.
Microwave, coffeemaker, mini fridge and a printer. McAtee has quite naturally adjusted to making his martial arts space his home.
"It's not like you ever get past it [cancer]... It becomes a part of you," McAtee says: "It's not one and done." Following the surgery, McAtee received steroid medication as part of the cancer treatment. One of the major side effects was "unusual hair growth." Before, McAtee would go months without so much as a five o'clock shadow on his face, he said; but now, he boasts a full goatee. To him, the goatee is a symbol (though literal) of the transformation he's experienced because of cancer.
"It's not about whether the glass is half empty or half full," McAtee said after a full day of teaching, "I'm just happy to have a glass in my hand."