Greg Nelson: Staring Down Death

Stage Four

By Joseph Santoliquito Aug 28, 2012

He found out running up a hill in Thailand. That is where it started. That is where Greg Nelson discovered he was not invincible, that he was not Superman. The clue was not particularly noticeable. Just a little shortness of breath, Nelson kept telling himself. Back down and up again. He would run through it. However, what was unfolding would eventually change his life forever, though he did not know it then.

If only he could catch his breath.

Nelson was only 37 at the time. His mindset had only one directive when dealing with pain and fatigue, and that was to push back, not to question it. How could he know what was coursing through him? How could he know one day he would tire by just chewing cereal? Or struggle lifting a spoon to his mouth? Or need a year to relearn how to walk again? Or be reminded to breathe? How could he fathom those lonely nights when it was too painful to move a finger, staring at white hospital walls wondering whether or not he would live to see his children become adults?

Nelson was once one of those subjects lying in a bed surrounded by white coats and clipboards, scribbling notes and pondering why he was still living after all he had endured. He defied something that had its way with the human body, a rare form of nerve cancer called neurolymphomatosis. He had also already beaten non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Today, the world-class trainer of former UFC champions Brock Lesnar, Dave Menne and Sean Sherk is a two-time cancer survivor celebrating 10 years of remission. Nelson, now 47, is actually a walking, living, breathing miracle. His Academy in Brooklyn Center, Minn., once dwindled to about 80 students and around 3,000 square feet when he was battling cancer. It has since grown to a robust 300 students and more than 10,000 square feet.

Nelson is an inspiration to virtually everyone he meets and to those with whom he speaks. He has moved forward in his life feeling truly blessed, often falling asleep in hotel rooms on trips with his fighters with an open Bible lying across his chest and certain passages highlighted. Nelson comes armed with inspiration for anyone willing to listen to his message: anything is possible. He should know. He is living proof. No one thought he would survive his first encounter with cancer, let alone defeat the second -- and more treacherous -- neurolymphomatosis.

“It is sobering to beat cancer twice,” Nelson said. “You come back and you think that you’re not the guy who was as tough as you thought you were before. In my respect, prior to my cancer, coming from a really athletic mindset, you think of yourself as this badass that can do anything. I definitely did. Then this microscopic organism gets inside you and wipes you out, rips away everything you have and takes everything from you.

“It’s why a lot of things don’t bother me. It’s not that big of a deal,” he added. “Things that seemed traumatic at one time are kind of trivial now. When you really think about it, a lot of things in life ... unless it’s life-threatening, it really isn’t that big of a deal. What happened to me is a blessing, definitely. It strengthened my faith and my will to endure things. It changed the way I teach and how I see life. I look at it as showing people you can battle through anything.”

Nelson fought the fight, starting with that trot up a hillside in Thailand and a remarkable odyssey that perhaps only someone of his fortitude was equipped to combat.

Sean Sherk

Sherk stayed loyal through the illness.


In the fall of 2001, Nelson began to feel drained. He was not paying too much attention. At his academy, then the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, Nelson demonstrated a move to his students before being forced to sit because of exhaustion. As happens frequently with fatigue and fighters, he thought he had a virus, something treatable with over-the-counter medicine. He would soldier through it. However, his energy level was so depleted that his assistants were running classes.

“I think I really found out something was wrong when I was running on a hill in Thailand,” Nelson said. “I traveled to Thailand to train, and I was suddenly struck with fatigue. I started to get a little more tired doing things. I think that was the first sign I began thinking something wasn’t right.”

Still, he competed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Pan-American Championships in 2001. He was checked by doctors, but he was never given specific answers. It was a maddening process. Finally, Vee Nelson, his wife, a 5-foot-4 bulldog and champion throughout his ordeal, spoke up. On May 25, 2001, the Friday before Memorial Day, Vee told doctors that if Nelson did not undergo a CAT scan, she was afraid she would find her husband dead by the end of the weekend.

“I underwent the CAT scan at 5:30, and 15 minutes went by and then another 15 minutes before they told us immediately to get to the hospital,” Nelson recalled. “I remember walking through the department and looking up and it said, ‘Oncology Department’ -- that’s where we’re going. The doctors told us they found out I had cancer, and how odd it may sound, it was almost like a relief because they found out. All I wanted was an answer. They told me about the tumors on my liver, and I had tumors on my spleen. They told us I was in my fourth stage of cancer. It was that fast.”

Vee asked doctors if she could do anything to help him. They pulled her aside and suggested she get their personal affairs in order. However, neither of them was ready to let go. Nelson was to undergo aggressive treatment. Knowing how much fight was in her husband, Vee brought pictures to him from his competitive days.

“My son, Gunnar, was 2 at the time, and my daughter, Nina, was 5; they were two more special things to fight for,” Nelson said. “I remember the first three months I felt pretty good. I was still active with some things, and I began thinking I could do this. This wasn’t that bad. Then I went through that fourth chemotherapy, and that was like someone ripped the carpet right out from under me.”

He had trouble swallowing and began eating smoothies and ice chips with orange concentrate. He lost his sense of taste. Water tasted like metal. It zapped Nelson of everything, and that was just the beginning.

Sherk remembers how all of Nelson’s fighters congregated together at the Academy one night when they were first informed. Nelson was absent from his gym, and he rarely missed anything.

“To this day, Greg has always been the first one there and last one to leave the Academy, working, training 15 hours a day,” Sherk said. “We heard Greg was at Stage 4 at the time, but every time Greg was sick or hurt, he’d worked through it. This was hard to hear.”

For some, loyalty only ran so deep.

“I was among the first fighters Greg had,” Sherk said. “I was one of the only ones who stuck with him through the thick and thin of his cancer. A lot of people left Greg. That bothered me. I wouldn’t be where I am right now without Greg, but all of us had to figure out what our next move was because he went from a trainer and coach to being a father and husband first. We wanted to be there and support him as much as we could. Greg’s students had to start running the gym and teaching classes.

Dave Menne

Menne never doubted his mentor’s resolve.
“I was still fighting then,” he added. “Unfortunately, people get selfish sometimes and they left. Some of Greg’s top students thought the grass was greener on the other side. They didn’t take into consideration what Greg was going through. That hit us all. Some of these guys were friends of mine we trained with. I think we were all a little bothered by it.”

Nelson had other concerns. He began making progress towards recovery, but as one form of cancer was gradually diminishing, a new ominous threat surfaced. Nelson seemed clear of the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in November 2001. However, six months later, a new pain surfaced in his sciatic nerve, a sort of soreness that comes with riding a bicycle. It drifted down his left leg and then began working down his right leg. His left foot started to droop when he walked, forcing him at times to crawl around his home. Doctors again had no answers.

Nelson turned to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He felt like he was back where he was the previous year, “like a car being passed from one mechanic to another trying to find the problem.” Frustration returned.

“I was at the Mayo Clinic, and they had no clue,” Nelson said. “I admitted that the pain was so bad, and, sitting in this room with doctors all around, they didn’t know what was going on. Vee wasn’t sure what to do. I spent Christmas of 2002 at the Mayo Clinic. Doctors used a high-powered MRI, and it showed my left sciatic nerve was much larger than the right. That told doctors the lymphoma had drifted down into my nervous system. The cancer was staying alive by feeding off my body.”

Finish Reading » “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.”
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