STEVE MELEN ’92 HAS BEEN TO THE EDGE AND BACK
Crackling with energy and a palpable zest for life, Steve Melen ’92 (BBA) seems to have time for everything and everyone: his day job as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, his 10-year-old daughter, Ava, the 15 racehorses he co-owns and races around the country, his many friends, and his volunteer work as a board member and the public face of the nonprofit Gastric Cancer Foundation. He’s also writing an inspirational book, and recently launched a new side business, selling the certified shoes of winning horses to people who literally want a piece of his luck.
To say that Melen lives life like a man who cheated death would hardly be an overstatement. “I only had like a 12 percent chance of survival,” Melen says, of the shocking stomach cancer diagnosis he received in 2008. “I had my stomach removed, my spleen, half my pancreas and a third of my esophagus. I had surgical complications, a second emergency surgery and had to be sedated on a breathing tube for a week.”
As it turned out, surviving two harrowing surgeries was just the first in a string of grueling challenges that Melen would face over the next few years. He went through chemo and radiation, losing 50 pounds in the process. The physical and emotional assault of fighting cancer and facing death left him addicted to painkillers and alcohol. His marriage ended and it took two stints in rehab and before he finally achieved sobriety four years ago.
“The only things that were really consistent during that time were my friends,” Melen says. “Everything else was falling apart. My friends have been my consistent support group from the beginning.”
Those friends included a core group from his days at USD — guys who first met as college freshmen in 1988 and formed a superhuman bond during the following years. They shared rooms, houses and brotherhood in Sigma Chi. They surfed, traveled, studied, socialized and navigated young adulthood together.
“Steve has known my wife Heidi forever,” says Nick Ghiselli ’92 (BBA). “He actually kissed her before I did. We all just kind of grew up together.”
The group remained close after graduation, with some drifting across the country and several landing in and around San Francisco. They worked, married, started families and kept in close touch, despite long distances and the passage of years. For the most part, life was golden. No one could imagine that for Melen, it would change so drastically, so soon.
“I was skiing with him in Squaw Valley when he complained he wasn’t feeling well,” says Brad Zampa ’93 (BS). “Then he couldn’t ski.” Before long, Melen was in the hospital awaiting surgery, with Zampa at his bedside. “A bunch of us were there,” he says. “We saw some pretty scary times.”
“I think that’s where friendship kicks up a notch,” adds Tim Kane ’92 (BA), who flew from Atlanta to be with Melen in Palo Alto. “You see what’s really important, and who’s really important to you.”
But there was only so much that his friends could do when Melen turned to painkillers and alcohol after fellow cancer patient J.P. Gallagher passed away. “I hit a low after that,” Melen remembers. “I was afraid of dying. I was having marital troubles and I was depressed.”
“He was just a mess,” Ghiselli says. “I had to tell him, ‘I can’t help you. You have to help yourself. You have to get sober.’ And to his credit, he did.”
Four years later, Melen is inhaling life with unbridled gusto. Like a kid doling out handfuls of candy, he shares his hopeful story and optimistic outlook with others fighting similar forms of cancer. It’s a big part of the work he does with the Gastric Cancer Foundation, which was founded by Gallagher with Melen’s personal and financial support. As a long-term survivor, Melen is part of a very small group; the fact that he is living so successfully makes his story even rarer.
“There are very few survivors doing as well as I am so many years out,” he says. “I wish I could bottle this hope and give it to more people. Every day someone reaches out to me and says, ‘Thank you.’ That’s really what keeps me going.”
In addition to meeting patients and encouraging contributions, Melen has also starred in videos aimed at increasing awareness about the disease. Not long ago, he joined other cancer survivors on Capitol Hill, where they urged representatives and senators to support ongoing research funding. And he donated his own blood and cancer cells to a registry to help scientists isolate genes specific to gastric cancer.
“What I’m part of is more about getting money to doctors to do specific research,” he says. “If they can pinpoint genes, that can lead to cures.”
If pulling joy out of every moment sounds like Melen’s status quo, finding opportunities to spread it around is what fuels his drive to live. When he and his friends meet up, it’s often Melen who has arranged the trip.
“Steve’s changed a lot over the years,” says Zampa. “I think anyone who goes through a near-death experience is going to have a different perspective on life. He’s traveling, he’s got his horses. I think he’s really embraced every single day of his life. The old adage, ‘carpe diem’ would sum him up pretty well.” — Karen Gross
Photo: Steve Melen ‘92 (BBA) is pictured floating alongside his daughter, Ava.