People, Profiles

I’m a Berkeleyan: MBA student Steve Varacalli on living life to the fullest — despite cancer

At 11, Varacalli found out he had a rare form of spinal cancer and has been fighting it ever since

“Last summer, after finishing up exams as a first-year MBA student at Berkeley Haas, I learned during a routine MRI that my rare form of spinal cancer had come back.

a selfie of Steve Vacaralli smiling with a country road behind him

Steve Varacalli is an MBA student at Berkeley Haas. (Photo courtesy of Steve Varacalli)

I can’t say it was a shock.

I’ve been fighting this cancer since I was a kid. I was 11 when I first collapsed on the soccer field in my Australian hometown with excruciating pain in my legs. Since then, life has included a series of painful surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and three relapses, as doctors around the world struggled to diagnose my type of cancer — ependymoma — and how to best treat it. Many times, it seemed as if nothing would ever work.

I never gave up, though I came close a few times. Learning to live with the disease, which is hell, don’t get me wrong, has meant learning to live life to the fullest despite the cancer — playing soccer and cricket, getting involved with startups at Haas and with clubs on campus (I was a founder and co-president of the new Cannabis Club at Haas and worked with two campus startups as an adviser). After earning a master’s degree in finance in Australia, I’m now getting close to an MBA.

Steve Varacalli and two other people playing soccer on a field

Varacalli, who has been fighting a rare form of spinal cancer since he was 11, tries to stay active and involved in life — despite his disease. (Photo courtesy of Steve Varacalli)

One thing that makes my life away from home easier is the support of my classmates. I’m very close to my family at home in Angle Vale, South Australia. Growing up on a rural vineyard and farm the youngest of four siblings, I was always running around with them — or playing cricket, soccer and football.

When I relapsed here in Berkeley, classmates became a second family. Immediately, they rallied around me, posting a spreadsheet asking for volunteers to drive me to six weeks of radiation treatment at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto. The form filled up within minutes, to my relief and amazement.

They cooked me nightly dinners, too, so I didn’t have to worry about finding a meal before I headed to class and could instead rest. Assistant Dean Peter Johnson provided strong support and organized a schedule with me to do evening courses so I could travel to treatment during the day.

Professors also provided so much help — including Omri Even-Tov, who surprised me by arranging with a group of my classmates to go to a Golden State Warriors game a few days after I finished my radiation treatment. On that final day, my classmate Fahed Essa was at the wheel. We blasted “Eye of the Tiger” in the car on the way home to celebrate and sent the video to our classmates. It was such a relief to be done and cancer-free one more time.

Steve with a group of friends in front of a sunset

Varacalli and his friends celebrate his last day of radiation. (Photo courtesy of Steve Varacalli)

To celebrate and thank everyone, I threw a big party at my house, asking people to attend in costumes of radioactive suits, and many of them did. (Yes, cancer survivors can have an off-kilter sense of humor.)

This May, I plan to collect my diploma at graduation, on time and with a solid GPA. Long-term, my goal is to become an entrepreneur, but first I’ll pursue a career in agricultural technology or real estate in California. Coming from a farming family and having been involved in real estate development, I’d like to test myself and build a career in America.

I’ll also keep giving back. As an ambassador for Cancer Council SA, a group of South Australians devoted to cancer prevention efforts, my duties include speaking at corporate events, handing out sunscreen to kids and helping recently diagnosed cancer patients and their families deal with their diagnoses.

Another life goal, however, is to compete in the Paralympics. I’m not sure what event I’ll try out for, but I’m a competitive person, and it might just be soccer. (I played for the Haas MBA soccer team in a tournament in Austin last year.)

For now, I’m feeling so positive about my future and appreciative of my time at Berkeley. Every day as I’m making my way to class, I’m thankful for the opportunities and friendships I’ve found here and for the culture of inclusiveness and support.”

This is part of a series of thumbnail sketches of people in the UC Berkeley community who exemplify Berkeley, in all its creative, scrappy, world-changing, quirky glory. Are you a Berkeleyan? Know one? Let us know. We’ll add your name to a drawing for an I’m a Berkeleyan T-shirt.