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Patterned cotton hospital gowns, cerulean blue latex gloves and prickly IV needles – aspiring windsurfer Michael Cramer never imagined that these would be every day items two years ago.
Cramer, 21, has spent a majority of the last 730 days in and out of hospitals, medical centers, physical therapy sessions and chemotherapy regimens since being diagnosed with cancer, a disease that would prove to change his life forever.
“It’s not about what happens to you in life, it’s about how you react to it,” Michael preached when asked how he coped with giving up windsurfing.
Cramer has decided to handle the hand he was dealt with gratitude and grace, inspiring folks all around him to approach life with a genuinely positive mindset.
“If you’re happy all the time, you don’t learn and grow,” said Ashlee Cramer, Michael’s mother, when asked how she perceives the diagnosis in hindsight.
“I think with Michael, somehow he’s been so resilient and willing to be vulnerable,” she said. “Even in times when we didn’t know if he would survive, we’d make videos on TikTok (with the intention of paying it forward).”
You are not alone
In a world full of darkness, the Cramer family makes it a prerogative to find beauty. Michael and Ashlee flourish in the midst of catastrophe, persevere through affliction and have an overt knack for instilling meaningful human connections.
“That’s what happened when my husband died,” Ashlee said of Michael’s father, who died of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma himself five years ago. “When things go bad, we just know there is a light. Life is just beautiful.”
Despite only being in remission since October 2020, Michael devotes his time to hosting weekly cancer support groups, podcasts and TikTok lives.
“I try my best to make my videos for other people, so that when they see them they are inspired and feel less alone,” Michael said. “I want people to see me as a regular person who had cancer and decided to change people’s lives.”
Forced to adapt
Michael wasn’t always using his voice for inspiration.
The athlete was just like any other kid until his circumstances forced him to adapt to living with an ominous malady at the age of 19, right when he was on the cusp of experiencing life at Eckerd College.
Michael was diagnosed with Hepatosplenic T-Cell Lymphoma on July 14, 2020, just two months after his 19th birthday.
Hepatosplenic T-Cell Lymphoma is an extremely rare T-cell lymphoma, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Being one of the most aggressive blood cancers to exist, the only chance for survival is a bone marrow transplant, which provides the body with healthy blood-forming stem cells.
Michael was admitted to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Corral Terrace, Fla., to start chemotherapy soon after his initial diagnosis.
“The immediate goal was not just to get me in remission, but to get me in a deep remission,” said Michael, who did three, 21-day cycles of intense chemotherapy.
And once the tedious chemo sessions provided Michael with remission, it was time to find a donor – one that would be a 100% match. Luckily, just three months later, Michael received a transplant from an overseas donor on Oct. 27.
“I was prepped with 12 sessions of radiation and then a few days of the most intense chemotherapy that a body can handle,” he said. “Once my marrow was wiped out, it was time for the transplant. It was anti-climatic. The transplant was basically just an infusion of stem cells. It looked like a bag of tomatoes was going into my body.”
After Michael’s transplant, he was struck with the harsh irony of cancer treatment – though he was “saved,” his body would also be left with collateral damage beyond comparison.
This wasn’t exactly the news his windsurfing career needed.
“I developed many complications that I have been dealing with for the last two years,” he said in a melancholic tone, including Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), Thrombotic microangiopathies (TMA), the removal of his gallbladder, C. Diff. Colitis, avascular necrosis, osteoporosis, scarring of his liver, as well as excess fluid ascites.
GVHD stands out as the most grueling complication for Michael. According to the Cleveland Clinic, ultimately, GVHD is a complication in which the “donated bone marrow views the recipient’s body as foreign,” therefore attacking the body. In Michael’s case, it is his liver, his GI tract and his skin.
Nonetheless, no matter what challenges Michael faces on a typical day-to-day basis – whether it pertains to his physical health, his mental health or the fact that his health requires him to socially isolate while all of his friends are in college – his smile is as shiny as ever.
And it shined brightest when Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo surprised him at the hospital back in July. Michael always wore Bam’s jersey while working out, inspired by the NBA All-Star’s hard work and tenacity.
Windsurfing around the world
Michael was born just outside of Paris in France to his mom, Ashlee, and dad, Patrice, and currently resides in North Miami. He has two siblings: Jennifer and Steven.
As a teenager, Michael spent most of his time in close proximity to the beach, delving in a bevy of aquatic sports like surfing and windsurfing. He also played basketball and skateboarded religiously, in addition to going to school and spending time with his loved ones.
Michael’s interest in sports actually became more than just a hobby. He joined the Olympic development team for windsurfing and traveled internationally to Bonaire, France, Italy, Latvia, Peru, Poland and Bermuda, as well as California and all throughout his home state of Florida.
Michael placed third in the National Windsurfing Championships in 2016 and made the Gold Fleet that same year in the European Championships in Poland.
It was clear the athlete had vast potential in the Olympic stratosphere, but Michael had to leave the team when he chose to attend Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Michael did mention there was a chance of the team coming back together, but once cancer became his new reality, those dreams had to be pushed aside.
As a result of aggressive medications like prednisone, Michael developed osteonecrosis, which makes his bone density extremely low. He has no choice but to take part in physical therapy twice a week in order to regain the strength he once knew.
But, a dream being pushed aside is far from a dream being gone.
Michael has already experimented with surfing post-treatment, hitting the waves on Miami Beach solely at dusk to prevent dangerous contact between his skin and the sun.
“Surfing for the first time made me feel like myself again,” he said. “It was like I was Michael again for the first time in two years.”
“I am home when I’m in the ocean.”
Finding a beautiful path on the road ‘back from hell’
Who Michael was surrounded by during the darkest of times really made all the difference.
“I have a great support system,” he said. “I have amazing friends who shaved their heads when I was going through chemotherapy … My mom is literally my best friend. She is with me through everything and I am so grateful to have her beside me.”
To Ashlee, her son is handling his predicament with faithfulness and fortitude.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “I love that coming back from hell, he has found this beautiful path of wanting to share his stories.”
And this grand army of support and warmth is exactly what Michael needs, as he is still poked and prodded with needles and remains isolated in his Miami home.
“I am on many immunosuppressants right now, so I do not have much immunity and I live in a small bubble, which is very challenging mentally,” he said. “Cancer is a harder mental struggle than a physical one, and that is saying something because cancer is a tough challenge either way.”
Michael and Ashlee host a podcast called “Michael and Mom Talk Cancer,” and both Michael and Ashlee run their own support groups on a weekly basis.
Michael spearheads a support group for cancer survivors every Friday at 5 p.m. ET. Ashlee does the same but for caregivers on Saturdays at 10 a.m. ET.
“The best way to help yourself is to help others,” Ashlee said.
Nonetheless, much of Michael’s schedule still revolves around recovery. He travels to the University of Miami Health System, which is about an hour away from his home in North Miami, twice a week to receive Extracorporeal photopheresis (ECP) treatment to tend to his GVHD.
And yet, instead of solely fixating on his own health and wellness, Michael reaches out his hand to inspire the younger generation of cancer diagnoses by speaking vulnerably about his own experiences.
“We decided to do the podcast to help other people, so that they can be entertained and also see a new perspective that we bring to the table with our life,” Michael said.
Nurse in training
What does Michael’s future look like? It’s simple: Michael plans to keep living his life the best way he knows how.
The former athlete plans to pick up a surfboard again and regain his strength in the water and resume taking classes on the trek to become a Registered Nurse, as well as motivationally speak to the world about his story.
“I want people to see me as a regular person who had cancer and decided to change people’s lives,” Michael said. “I want to be known as someone who did something revolutionary for the cancer community and brought people together. I feel I have created an audience and group of amazing people that should all be connected.”