Greg Nelson: Staring Down Death

Walking Miracle

By Joseph Santoliquito Aug 28, 2012
Erik Paulson

Paulson remains as close as a brother.
The alien burrowing deeper into him was neurolymphomatosis, which is an infiltration of the peripheral nervous system by lymphoma and non-tumor lymphocytes. It affects cranial and peripheral nerves and roots. There were 33 documented cases of neurolymphomatosis around the world at the time, and 32 of them were post-mortem. Then, a 33rd person died of the disease. Zero survivors. No hope. That was the prognosis. Nelson was filled with drugs to make him comfortable.

“They wanted me to stay comfortable through all of the pain; I remember seeing my wife on her tip-toes yelling at the doctors demanding they go after this thing,” Nelson said with a laugh. “She’s tough; they needed a kick in the butt. She provided it. We were going to undergo a stem cell transplant, but it had gotten so bad that I would stop breathing. The nurses used to nudge me to remind me to breathe. The pain was so great they gave me Ketamine, which, I think, is a horse tranquilizer.”

Nelson’s body was bombarded with chemo every day. It was like emptying a glass, pouring out every cancerous blood cell in his body and replenishing them with clean cells. He had five million stem cells transplanted. Then he was given Prednisone after the stem cell transplant. Nevertheless, Nelson’s body was breaking down. By December 2002 and into January 2003, Nelson was enervated, down to about 130 pounds.

“It’s like literally rebooting a computer, but the stem cell transplant was the last draw and it worked,” Nelson said. “It was literally within weeks I began feeling better. The whole time I was in Mayo I lost control of my legs. I was a 100-percent invalid. Everything had to be done for me, and I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like people doing things for [him]. I remember I had them put a bar over my bed so I could get up. I was like a baby lying there. I lost control of my bodily functions.”

He grew tired chewing even the most basic things, like Cheerios. He needed aids to walk, using a cane and a walker. By the spring of 2003, he had lost total control of his legs. At the Mayo Clinic, his children would sleep overnight with him. He remembers them bouncing on the bed.

“I had to kind of fake it,” Nelson recalled. “The kids knew I was sick, but they didn’t know how sick I was. There are pictures of them with me on the bed, and that lifted me more than you can believe.”

One could see Nelson’s bones through his skin. Any movement was painful. Menne remembers visiting his trainer frequently. Nelson was sedated at the time, and Menne helplessly watched as his friend withered right before his eyes.

Having something you
take for granted taken
away -- like walking -- it’s
pretty humbling. I learned
so much from this.”

-- Greg Nelson, The Academy

“It’s horrible what people have to endure; I was scared for him, and we all knew how grave this was, but I never had any doubts Greg would pass,” Menne said. “For whatever reason, I didn’t think it was imminent, even though the doctors said it was. Maybe it was an aspect of knowing Greg as a martial artist and a competitor that there was an underlying feeling when I was there. Though it was horrible, it never sunk in that it was the end for him. I always felt he would bounce back. Greg’s spirit and willingness to fight gave me the idea he would eventually beat it.”

Erik Paulson, a rugged, square-jawed trainer, goes way back with Nelson. The two act more like brothers than close friends. Paulson sensed something was not right with his pal before the first cancer was diagnosed. Paulson may have known before anyone, even Nelson himself. One night in 2001, the two worked out together, and Nelson was not feeling well. They retreated to Nelson’s home, where Paulson gave him a massage and an adjustment. Later, when Paulson drove home, tears flowed from his eyes.

“I knew he had cancer,” he said. “I don’t know how I knew. I just knew.”

During Nelson’s battle against neurolymphomatosis, Paulson ran numerous benefits to help offset the $250,000 in medical costs he incurred. Like Menne, Paulson had no doubts Nelson would triumph.

“Guys really stepped up in support of Greg,” said Paulson, who offers international seminars through his Combat Submission Wrestling camp. “I had no doubts about Greg. There was no fear that he would get through this. Greg has too many wonderful things going on in his life: his wife, his children and his faith. Greg has tons of strength, and it’s his attrition I knew would win out.

“In the late 1980s, when Greg was divorced from his first wife, people wondered where Greg was,” he added. “He was back in the gym hitting the pads, working out and training. He had moved on, whereas some people that go through what he did wouldn’t. That’s Greg. He stayed strong to his faith and gave himself to God. Miracles happen that way. He is a kind of walking miracle.”


Nelson’s first steps looked like stumbles of a newborn dear. Two nurses were needed to wrap a belt around him and pull him to his feet. He would wobble and fall back onto the bed. So began yet another lengthy, arduous process: learning how to walk again.

“I remember my walker one morning was next to the hospital door and I remember being so mad because it was five steps from the bed,” Nelson said. “I remember taking those first steps on my own to get to the walker. I was basically moving forward, and I did not want to hit that nurse’s button for help. I told everyone from then on to leave the walker by the door before they left.

“It was like a personal rehab,” he added. “There was this Russian physical therapist. I called her a Russian torture specialist. Instead of using my hands on the walking bar, she made me use the tips of my fingers. She would yell at me in her Russian accent. I loved her. She had no sympathy for me whatsoever, and, yeah, I bonded with her. I told her not to let me get away with anything. I didn’t want any breaks.”

It took Nelson a year to walk again. Then, he had to relearn how to kick, to teach his legs and feet all the nuances of the martial arts he once mastered. Nelson was a natural athlete, a wrestling champion in Minnesota. Everything once came easy to him.

“I became the person I used to make fun of, and that changed the way I teach. I became a far better teacher because I understood other students; it also made me push my students even more,” Nelson said. “Having something you take for granted taken away -- like walking -- it’s pretty humbling. I learned so much from this.”

His mind sometimes wanders back to those nights alone in the hospital when the doubts crept close. One night, the morphine drip ran out, and Nelson said nothing. He did not tap the nurse’s button; he sat up looking at the hands of the clock. One minute to tolerate the pain and another and another.

Nelson plans on writing a book about his experience. He has no problem sharing his story, always forwarding his phone number to cancer advocacy groups. Many do not know what to do or where to go when the affliction strikes. Nelson receives calls from cancer patients all over the country. His is a rare successful case study proving it is possible to beat the deadly disease.

“When I was going through it, I’d get the feelings of what if I wasn’t able to see Gunnar and Nina grow up,” Nelson said. “Then I would recollect positive acclimations, and I memorized a ton of verses from the Bible to beat negative thoughts down. I wasn’t supposed to live through this. My wife is my hero, and I have many, many friends to thank who were by my side, but I don’t think of myself as amazing. I’m just another person who beat cancer.

“It’s almost surreal now when I look back at it, because it’s like it happened to another person,” he added. “You once thought you were Superman, but you discover it will take a lot to bring you down.”


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