Rowdies fullback Graham Tatters doesn't sweat the small stuff anymore.
The Scot, who turned 25 Monday, knows how fragile life can be. He has learned the value of perseverance. And he has seen too many close friends come and go.
"I know a lot of people who have died," Tatters said. "I have to look at things at times like all this I have could be gone. I have to look at what I would do if I only had a year to live. If someone told me that, I know I would be doing the exact same thing. It's a nice feeling to be in that place."
It has been four years since Tatters was declared cancer-free after two years of treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, five rounds of chemotherapy to eradicate a9-pound tumor lodged between his lungs that nearly killed him. But cancer is never far from his mind. Not because of his vivid treatment memories or twice-a-year checkups. It's because of the people he has met, and lost, along the way.
"I would say that about 80 percent of his life has to do with cancer," Tatters' wife, Dana, said.
Tatters was diagnosed when he was 19 and a sophomore walkon at UNC-Charlotte. On the field, his greatest strength was his fitness. He was always able to outrun opponents and teammates. One day he couldn't walk to class because everything was spinning and his left arm hurt, so he went to the campus clinic. He was told he probably strained a muscle lifting weights.
The dizziness remained, and he developed a bad cough. Doctors said he had pneumonia. A nurse noticed a bump on his chest, but Tatters brushed it off as a result of getting elbowed in a game. But it prompted anX-ray, which revealed that one of his lungs was full of fluid and the other was two-thirds full.
A closer look revealed the tumor.
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Tatters ended up in the pediatric cancer ward of Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. Doctors told him he likely wouldn't run again, let alone play soccer.
He was determined to return to the field.
"I describe it as my light at the end of the tunnel," Tatters said. "When you're sitting there and you don't know what you're doing, you're miserable and you're tired and you can't see your friends, that's what I looked forward to."
Chemotherapy left him weak. Steroids led to a 50-pound weight gain. Another drug made him wake up crying.
But Tatters was a positive presence at the hospital. He loved playing Xbox with younger patients and befriended everyone who crossed his path.
"His treatment was very aggressive," said his doctor, Mark Mogul. "He had chemotherapy, blood transfusions, spinal taps. But Graham was so outgoing, and he has such a positive outlook."
Said Tatters: "To me, it was great. I'm challenging 8-year-olds to Tetris."
Tatters made countless friends. He attended Dream Street, a camp in Arizona for people ages 18 to 24 with life-threatening diseases.
"An English teacher once said to me that the reason you read books it to find out that everyone is kind of similar," Tatters said. "It's the same when you're going through cancer. You don't know what's going wrong because no one can relate to you. No one can say, 'I know what that's like,' because they don't."
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Tatters was determined to return to soccer. After missing his sophomore season, he returned as a junior, playing with a protective plate that guarded a treatment port connected to his heart. And he had to relearn the game. A drug he took for spinal taps took away sensation in his fingers and toes, so he had to teach himself touch again.
"I used to run all day," Tatters said. "I'd try to outrun everybody. When you can't do that, you've got to think of other ways. You've got to disguise things a little bit better. I was an idiot. I just ran everywhere."
Tatters is involved in the Livestrong Global Envoy program, part of Lance Armstrong's Livestrong cancer-fighting and -support organization, in which public figures work as activists. He hopes to become more involved by visiting hospitals and serving as a spokesman.
When the Rowdies played in Austin, Texas, in May, he visited the Livestrong headquarters. This season he has befriended a teenage Rowdies fan whose girlfriend is having the same treatment he had.
"He's met so many people through cancer, and those people were like family to him," Dana Tatters said. "Graham just touches a lot of people's lives, and that's something he likes doing."
In one way, Tatters feels like it's his duty. He lost his best friend to cancer a year ago and an aunt weeks ago. His mother just recently was declared free of breast cancer.
He looks at some photos from his trip to the Dream Street camp, and he is the only one in them alive today. Presbyterian Hospital has a quilt with the names of the approximately 40 kids who were treated there when he was. He is the sole survivor.
"Every now and again you think about it, and you don't complain about many things after that," Tatters said. "If your plane's late or your legs are hurting, you're like, 'Jesus, really? I'm alive.'
"Those are the things that really hit me. Most of the time, I can blow it off and say it's no big deal. But when you see and remember your arms around this person or that person and you think, 'They died six months ago. They died a year ago,' it really hits you hard."
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Rowdies vs. Miami
When/where: 7 p.m. Sunday, Steinbrenner Field, Tampa TV: BHSN