Perspective Online

Surviving to Lead

by Julie Lineback

University of West Georgia senior Michael Stevens doesn’t remember a time before cancer. Diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at the age of four and then again at 14, the disease has not only shaped his past, but his future as well.

Surviving to Lead“I’ve had to deal with this my whole life,” said Michael, who is a chemistry major. “You spend your whole life doing this one thing, and it becomes your identity. You are a cancer survivor. That defines you.”

And although Michael has been cancer free for over five years, he’s still fighting, and he doesn’t plan to quit. At the end of high school when his parents asked what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, he said he wanted to be a doctor. His love of science and appreciation of medicine, combined with his identity as a survivor, made the decision an easy one.

“It’s so natural,” he explained. “I spent my whole life in a hospital. I’m familiar with the atmosphere and what it takes to get through all that. Why not do that with the rest of my life?”

Alongside him for the journey is oncologist Dr. John Bergsagel. “Dr. B.,” as Michael referred to him affectionately, is not an average mentor. He was a champion of Michael’s and his doctor during both battles with ALL. While Michael doesn’t remember much from his treatment at age four, he has a specific memory of playing with Legos and Tinker Toys with Dr. Bergsagel. At 14, Dr. Bergsagel and Michael would jam to Rock Band and play video games during his hospital stays.

“When my parents had to go to work, he and I would just hang out. We became friends,” Michael said. “We always had these inside jokes. He was such a fatherly figure.”

Michael began shadowing Dr. Bergsagel during his rounds at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta during the summer of 2014.

“It’s been very interesting to hear his impressions,” said Dr. Bergsagel. “We have a lot of medical students and residents who come to our clinic, but
none of them have the deep insight into what it’s like to be a childhood cancer patient that Michael does.”

While normally being a silent observer, Michael has been there when Dr. Bergsagel breaks the news to families that their young loved one has cancer. Michael said he rarely mentions that he’s a survivor, but there are times when he is glad to provide hope.

“There was a 4-year-old patient with ALL, the same scenario I was in,” Michael recalled. “The parents were worried sick, and Dr. B. brought up the fact that I had ALL when I was four. It really helped the parents. They saw that I was in college, about to graduate, and I was fine. I think it gave them a sense of relief. That was the highlight of my day.”

In addition to shadowing, another large part of Michael’s life as a cancer survivor is being a counselor at Camp Sunshine, a place for young cancer patients in Rutledge, Georgia.

“Camp is awesome, and there’s no better friends than camp friends,” Michael said with a smile. “Camp takes all the things that you didn’t think you could do and shows you that you can do them.”

Oncologists, like Dr. Bergsagel, are involved with Camp Sunshine as well as the camp’s full clinic. Michael said he believes this role is just as important as the roles of counselors and hopes to continue once he becomes a doctor.

“If the kids have fun with you outside of the hospital, that makes the relationship that much stronger,” he said.

Following graduation from UWG in Fall 2015, Michael plans to apply to every medical school in the state. If he doesn’t get accepted right away, he plans to enroll in a master’s program in hopes that the extra credentials will help push his application through. His goal is to become an oncologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta like Dr. Bergsagel.

“He has a great temperament for pediatric oncology,” Dr. Bergsagel observed. “He’s calm and doesn’t get too excited too easily, which is important when you’re dealing with serious diseases.”

But Michael said that he hopes that a scientific breakthrough will force him to tweak his plans before he starts.

“I hope there’s a cure before then, and I have to become a different kind of doctor,” he concluded. “But if I can help people because I had to go through all these bad experiences, then that’s something I have to do.”

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 edition of Perspective magazine.


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Posted: September 9, 2015

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