Upper Darby's Steve Brown, dubbed "RemissionMan" is many things – a triathlete, coach, writer, speaker, cancer survivor. He has competed in ultramarathons and IRONMAN events, but what is probably most compelling about his story is how he has turned his cancer diagnosis into a mission to help other cancer patients.
Brown was completely floored when he was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) in February of 2006 at the age of 46. He never thought an athlete like him who ran triathlons and lived a healthy lifestyle had anything to worry about.
More than just a sore throat
It all started when he began to have some difficulty swallowing. First, it was just with certain foods, and then liquids. Eventually he even struggled with simply swallowing his own saliva. His doctor put him on steroids and antibiotics, but nothing seemed to help. Then he saw an ear, nose and throat specialist who wanted to take his tonsils out. It was during the pre-surgery screening and blood work that they found the cancer. "I was the typical guy. I didn't get regular blood work back then," he explained.
One of the tell tale signs of cancer is fatigue. His doctor was surprised at how high his white cell count was and told him that he was probably feeling exhausted a lot. He was, but didn't make the connection before the diagnosis. "Because of my training for triathlons, I just thought I was overtraining and that was what was causing it," Brown said.
When he started chemotherapy, he was determined to stay in control of the disease and his life. He didn't want people, especially his children, to see him sick so he would often run all the way home from his treatments.
"I knew it would make me feel empowered and in control," he said. "I didn't want my kids to think, 'There is my sick dad.' I wanted to say to them that I was okay and here is how I can show you."
For Brown, staying physically active and having a positive mindset were both important to his recovery. He drew many parallels between the challenges he faced with cancer to the challenges he faced as an athlete.
"I'd use mental imagery to envision cancer cells falling off me as I was running and then I would kick them into a storm drain," he explained. "I pictured the cancer cells looking like those scrubbing bubbles from that old commercial. I believed that if I could stay strong and keep in motion that it was one more weapon against cancer."
By July of 2006, he was in remission and back to racing triathlons.
But Brown's battle with cancer is not over. This blood cancer is a chronic disease. "The best you can hope for is that it lies dormant," he said. "Emotionally it is taxing. You live every day knowing that it is there, but you can't let it own you."
"It is a delicate balance. I have done a good job rebounding physically and my doctor works with me scheduling my treatments so they are not right before a big race."
Brown's cancer relapsed in 2012 and in 2013, but he responded well to treatment, and has been in remission since then.
Sharing his story
It wasn't long after his diagnosis that Brown decided to chronicle his journey in order to give hope to others. He has written several books; his most recent, "Relentless Mettle: My Cancer, My Rules" was published earlier this year. He also presents at many speaking engagements including a recent one at the Endurance Sports Expo in Oaks, Pa., where he talked about the positive impact the multisport community has had on his recovery.
"I want people to realize that a cancer diagnosis doesn't have to be the end of something, that it could actually be the beginning of something instead. For me it opened up so many doors," Brown said.
"I think people have a preconception of what cancer is and who it impacts," he added. "I wanted to take away the mystery surrounding the diagnosis and treatment, especially since I had a favorable response to treatment."
Besides his writing and speaking engagements, Brown is also a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training Program, in which athletes in exchange for training and support, raise money for blood cancer research.
"I always knew who they were. You can't run a race without seeing them there and they always have so much spirit and energy. Once I found out they had a triathlon training program, I signed up as a coach," he said.
"It is incredibly rewarding to work with them. I love the sport and talking to first-timers to help them get started. On the flip side, they are raising money for my disease so I feel like I have so much skin in the game. How can you not embrace that?"
In all the work he does, Brown's goal is to benefit other patient athletes and their families and to be a "medium of hope" for others. Learn more about what is next in his journey at remissionman.com.