At age 13, the boy began suffering headaches so intense he would lie in the fetal position until he passed out.
On July 7, 1988, surgeons made an incision from the back of his head to the base of his neck to remove a golf-ball size tumor from his brain stem.
The location of the tumor affected the balance and his vision. For three years, the first thing he did when his feet hit the floor in the morning was vomit. He weighed 90 pounds during his senior year.
July 1988 might seem like a lifetime ago for an accomplished triathlete, someone whose success is measured daily, in tenths of seconds.
For Brian Melekian, it represents life’s starting line. It’s when a 13-year-old boy stared down death, stopped asking “Why me?” and began to ask “Why not?”
Melekian, of Los Angeles, was a brain cancer survivor long before he was a champion triathlete.
He hopes to bring his story to West Des Moines for the fourth Hy-Vee Triathlon June 12-13.
Q: Does the memory of your illness serve as a driving force in competition?
A: There comes a point in almost any race or long training day when you ask yourself why are you doing this or how do you go on. When I visit with kids dealing with cancer, kids who don't know whether or not they are going to live or die, if they will be able to walk again, kids attached to tubes and wires, it isn't hard for me to find the motivation in something like a race. In fact it makes it all pale in comparison.
During Ironman Arizona last year, I was feeling tired after a long swim and halfway through the bike was dealing with a crippling stomach ache. There came this moment though where I thought back to the summer of re-learning how to walk, to dribbling a basketball 1,000 times with my left hand, 1,000 times with my right just so I could remember how to do it again and I just started laughing. A stomach ache? Tired legs? It all seemed silly in comparison with that summer of 1988.
Q: Why endurance sports?
A: I fell into long distance triathlons pretty much by accident. I started with a sprint and liked it, though I really couldn't get too deeply into a sport that was predicated on how fast you could change your clothes.
So I gravitated to half-Ironman races and finally Ironman races because what's in your heart becomes much more important. 70.3 or 140.6 miles is a long distance to cover, and I found that it is a great equalizer.
Q: What advice would you give someone facing the same health challenges?
A: We all face hardships in life. Illness, death, you name it. When it comes to being diagnosed with a serious disease, even a terminal disease, though, everything changes. There is nothing else that matters and that becomes your singular focus. To that person, young or old, I would say: fight.
Fight for your life and never give up. Never give up hope because you never know what is going to happen. If you choose to roll over, to quit, then yes there is a good chance you won't make it or that you will live a life of limitations of your own creation. If you choose not to quit, though, there is no limit. I never once thought about dying when I was diagnosed with brain cancer; the thought of dying never crossed my mind.
And I didn’t. But then I chose to close off and get angry for what happened to me and play the victim and so that was my life for many years. It was only in letting go of all that and choosing to live a better, bigger life than that, that I did. Simply put, never give up, no matter what.
Q: You work with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Tell us about the genesis of that relationship.
A: In 2007 I signed up for the Malibu Triathlon which benefitted Children's Hospital Los Angeles for the first time that year.
I was put in touch with a member of the Hospital Foundation who asked if I would like to join their team, which at the time had 30 members. It was the first contact of any kind I had had with the Hospital. For so many years I had just felt angry and didn't want anything to do with any memories of the hospital. By 2008, however, I was asked to become the Coach and Captain for the team which meant visiting the hospital and sharing my story with many different people.
It was the first time I had openly talked about getting diagnosed with cancer, dealing with cancer and ultimately the slow, painful recovery from cancer. But in sharing the story over and over, the gravity and the emotion of it evaporated. What became clear is that this wasn't about me or what I went through.
It was about what I could do to help other people, what my story of recovery could do to help someone suffering. Triathlon is swimming, biking and running, not exactly as significant as surviving cancer or dealing with the adversity that life can throw our way. That said, it is an excellent medium to communicate what you can accomplish when you refuse to quit.