Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor
Clay Treska knows what it’s like to fight for his life. He’s done it as a U.S. Marine in a war zone and as a cancer patient – twice.
He’s about to do it again. Treska, 32, achieved his dream of completing the 2010 Ironman World Championship and was focused on studying kinesiology at San Diego State University when he learned last week that a lump was found on his spine.
The bad news kept coming.
Because of his previous bouts with testicular cancer, Treska retired from the Marines and is no longer eligible for the level of care he received as an active duty Marine Staff Sergeant.
As of Monday, he still is waiting for a CT scan to find out exactly what he is facing. If a malignancy is found, it is likely he will be deemed terminal and farmed out to hospice care.
While Treska recognizes this might be his last battle, he wants to make sure no-one else has to fight it.
“I’ve been fighting in one war zone or the other for years now,” Treska said. “But this is the first time that I’ve explored all the options and I have nothing left. It is what it is. I have nothing to lose. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find some resolve. Hopefully, this situation could help out a lot of people.”
If the cancer is back, the 12-year veteran of the Marine’s only hope for survival is a repeat of an earlier experimental stem-cell treatment that costs $500,000.
Because of his retired status, the Department of Veterans Affairs will not offer that option. Treska knows he’s fighting for his life, but he also is fighting for the lives of all veterans who need or will need treatment.
He’s not asking for money, sympathy, pity or special treatment. He is asking those with the authority to change policy to promptly, properly and adequately care for his country’s veterans.
“I was told that (clinical trial) was not an option. I exhausted all the resources that were available to me, except try to convince the VA to change the policy and support me in the fact that I need the clinical trial in order to save my life,” he said. “This isn’t a fight necessarily to save my life but an effort to compliment all the people who have fought so hard to keep me alive up to this point. And it would an absolute tragedy if this biopsy comes back malignant and I have no other option than to succumb.”
Treska is reaching out to anyone and everyone in an effort to force a policy change and is encouraged by the support he has received in the last week.
However, he also has received hate mail. In typical fashion, Treska finds strength in that negative energy.
“There’s really not very much these individuals can say that can hurt me or put me through more than I’ve already been through. I have a certain amount of appreciation, because ultimately every time a hardship has come my way (negative letters and emails) ends up giving me strength to persevere,” he said. “It really has been a major factor in my success.”
Treska said he realizes he could not fully appreciate the positive without a dose of negative, no matter how vile and hurtful the words are.
“No matter if I live or die, these are the best days of my life,” he said. “I have learned more about society, and humanity, and about compassion and about love in the last week than I ever have in my life.”
Treska originally was diagnosed with Stage 1 testicular cancer shortly after he returned from a combat tour of Iraq in 2008, where he was part of a team that interrogated suspected combatants and civilians who might have information about combatants.
Having dodged bullets and bombs, Treska endured a brutal chemotherapy regime that stripped him of his hair, eyebrows and strength, but not his spirit.
Once the cancer was declared in remission, Treska peered at his weakened self in the mirror and wondered how to make the most of his second chance.
He would do a triathlon. He would be an Ironman.
His quest soon was hampered by back pain, which doctors repeatedly blamed on over-training. Suddenly, a lump popped up under Treska’s clavicle.
Doctors then told Treska the cancer was back. This time it was Stage IV, essentially a terminal diagnosis.
Even as medical staff were preparing Treska for hospice care, he insisted he was training for Ironman. That singular focus drove away many of his friends and supporters, who couldn’t bear to see him spend his energy slowly circling the nurses’ station.
Trailing his IV stand and wearing a protective mask, he carefully clocked his training miles. Thirty-six loops around the nurses’ station equals one mile.
Also unable to accept the dire prognosis, his family sought help elsewhere and found Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who had treated Lance Armstrong when he had a similarly bleak diagnosis.
He was subjected to two auto-stem cell transplants, an experimental treatment that involves siphoning off stem cells from a patient’s own blood. Most patients can tolerate only one such treatment, but Treska toughed out two and kept training.
He checked himself out of hospital – still with the chemo stent implanted in his shoulder – and trekked to Hawaii in June 2010 to compete in the 70.3-mile triathlon, a qualifying race for the full-distance Ironman World Championship.
It took 7 hours, 28 minutes and 34 seconds, but Treska crossed the finish line and put his first Ironman race in the record books.
Treska’s time was slower than it could have been as he had to rest several times during the bike leg because nerve damage caused cramps in his back.
However, just by proving he could finish the 70.3-mile race, Teska was eligible to be invited to compete in the fabled Ironman World Championship in Kona.
On Oct. 10, 2010, Treska notched another Ironman finish. He completed the grueling 140.6-mile race in 15:16:54.
“That finish line was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” he said.
With that goal accomplished and his cancer once again in remission, Treska stayed active in the world of triathlon, turned back to his university studies and continued to support other cancer patients through his Team Treska foundation.
Now, he is hoping he’ll be granted a third chance at life.
“I have plenty of fight left in me,” he said.
* Treska is posting daily video updates at www.facebook.com/clay.treska
* For more information, visit www.teamtreska.org
* Treska is asking friends and supporters to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs, their state senators and congressional members to demand a life-saving clinical trial is made available.