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From medulloblastoma patient to triathlete: A cancer survivor's inspiring story

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Michael Conway

By John-Henry Perera

At 21, the last thing on Michael Conway's mind was cancer. But that changed when doctors diagnosed the healthy, athletic college student with medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor that commonly affects children.

Twenty years later, Conway can't help but break a smile when talking about his cancer diagnosis. Now an employee at MD Anderson, where he monitors the use of donations to ensure they meet with the wishes of the donors and state policies, Conway says death didn't seem like an option at the time.

"The first thing I asked my doctor was, 'Am I going to lose my hair'?" he says. "I didn't really realize the severity of my brain tumor."

Living in the moment during cancer treatment
As it turned out, Conway's youth, energy and upbeat attitude proved to be his best coping mechanisms as he underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy. He looked upon his cancer journey as going through the motions, taking each day as it went.

Looking back, he describes the ordeal as similar to a bad breakup. "Day after day, I felt terrible, but I knew each day I got through, I was one day closer to being back to having my normal life again," Conway says. "It was rough, but eventually, one day I woke up and realized, 'Hey, it's over. I got through it.'"

His goal each day was -- and still is -- to make today the day he's going to live. "You should focus on what you need to get done today and live tomorrow when it gets here," Conway says.

Returning to MD Anderson as a volunteer
After beating medulloblastoma in 1990, Conway went back to school and graduated. Several years later, he felt an inherent need to support cancer patents at the institution that saved his life. So, he came back to MD Anderson, first as a volunteer, then later as an employee.

During his years as a volunteer, Conway visited regularly with patients who were staying in the hospital.

"My goal was to walk into every room and take every patient's mind off of their cancer," Conway says. "I wanted to give patients an escape. They didn't need another person asking them how they were feeling and reminding them that they had cancer."

Supporting kids with cancer at Camp Star Trails
Conway really connected with younger cancer patients he met while he was volunteering. They reminded him of what he went through during his journey and the positive impact it has had on his life.

He also volunteers as a counselor at Camp Star Trails, an overnight summer camp for MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital pediatric patients and their siblings. In fact, he's still volunteering with Camp Start Trails, some 15 years later.

The first time Conway volunteered at camp, he called it a "heaven on Earth" experience. He loved seeing the children enjoy some of the typical fun that they miss out on during cancer treatment as he and other counselors support and challenge the children in activities like horseback riding and canoeing.

Counselors, says Conway, have to find a balance, supporting children and understanding their limits, but also challenging them to gain confidence.

"It's such a gift to see these kids forget about their cancer and laugh and grow together," he says. "It's like living in a little bubble out there. As a counselor, I wanted to support those kids in any way I could. There is no limit to how positive or supportive you can be."

Inspiring others to find their own "triathlon"
Now, Conway is challenging himself to test his own limits, just as he's done for so many children at Camp Star Trails.

On his 20th anniversary of being cancer-free, Conway decided to try something he had not done before. One Internet search later, he found himself signing up for his first triathlon in New Braunfels, Texas in August 2010.

"It's been a few years now, but I still remember how accomplished I felt when I completed my first race," he recalls.

Since then, Conway has participated in a number of triathlons, including IRONMAN Texas this past May, and is steadily improving his distance and speed over time. But he doesn't simply see these as personal triumphs. With each triathlon he competes in, he hopes to inspire children with a disability, disease or disorder.

As he says, "One reason I do triathlons is to be an example that they, too, can overcome their setbacks, their triathlon, their own challenge -- whatever that is."

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