“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story”—Isak Dinesen
Steve Melen is a lucky man.
He’s a successful financial advisor and a likeable person. It’s difficult to refer to him by his journalism-correct surname after you’ve spoken with him once or twice. Married to his high school sweetheart, he has a daughter and a son. Together, they live in the lovely town of Tiburon on the Northern California peninsula that reaches into San Francisco Bay.
He caught the Thoroughbred horse bug nine years ago. That’s when Steve bought his first racehorse on a whim when a golfing partner suggested it to him as he teed up on the links.
“I bought that first horse because I wanted to expand my life and create a future that was exciting,” he recalls. That excitement came right away when Steve’s very first horse won her very first race.
Steve’s latest racehorse, Horologist, earned a starting gate and was the third betting choice in the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Keeneland. A horologist is a person who studies the measurement of time. Measuring time is something Steve knows a lot about.
Anyway, the four-year-old Bill Mott trainee didn’t fare so well in the Distaff, but there’s no shame in losing to all-time great Monomoy Girl with this year’s filly sensation, Swiss Skydiver, also in the race.
As if all that’s not enough, Steve is an author with a newly published book and a companion audiobook in the works right now.
Yes, Steve Melen has it all.
Well…not exactly. And it hasn’t always been that way.
The rest of the Steve Melen story
Some readers may recall long-time ABC Radio News host Paul Harvey. He broadcast a daily segment entitled “The Rest of the Story.” Harvey would recount a significant event, then return from a commercial break with little-known or ironic facts to fill in the rest of the event’s story.
The rest of the Steve Melen story, the one about a man who appears to have everything, would certainly merit a segment.
Steve was a young man of 38 in 2008 when his seemingly perfect life began crashing down around him.
“One Thursday morning, I was sitting at my desk,” he says, recalling the exact date and time. “My stomach suddenly felt like it was a volcano shooting lava into my throat.”
“Weird,” he thought.
Steve’s is the high-pressure world of finance where millions of dollars flip on a quarter-point change in a stock’s value and client’s expect the direction of their investment portfolio to shoot ever-upward like, well, lava in a volcano. “Weird” is common in that world.
But “Weird” continued for several weeks. Keeping food down became a problem. He began losing weight. Steve saw his family physician, but bloodwork came back negative for a suspected ulcer. Still, his doctor told him to slow down and lessen his stress level.
He tried to follow his doctor’s advice. He learned a glass or two of wine eased his physical symptoms, which in turn eased his stress.
He was feeding his then-year-old infant daughter one afternoon a few weeks later when he began feeling nauseous. The feeling lingered throughout the day and into a sleepless night. His wife was out of town at the time, due back home later that day.
But the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach told Steve something was terribly wrong. He got in touch with a usual sitter to care for his daughter while he drove himself alone to the Marin General Hospital ER.
An initial test revealed Steve was anemic. The ER doctor eliminated other possibilities, leaving internal bleeding. A scan spotted something unusual. A follow-up endoscopy revealed the likely cause, a growth at the base of his esophagus.
Patients with that kind of medical problem suffer an extended period of time in a seemingly endless cycle of doctor visits and tests that result in a finite diagnosis and treatment plan. Let’s foreshorten that lengthy time period and begin the rest of the Steve Melen story.
“Everyone’s one step away from nothing”
You see, Steve has no stomach.
Now, we don’t mean he has no stomach for losing horse races or anything like that. We mean he has no stomach; you know, the organ that digests food.
Steve’s tests revealed advanced-stage stomach cancer. Fortunately, if such a diagnosis can ever be fortunate, a surgeon familiar with many similar cases practiced at nearby Stanford University, home to one of the world’s finest medical centers.
His surgeon’s suggested plan was removal of Steve’s stomach—yes, you might have a few curious questions about that we’ll get to—followed by radiation and chemotherapy. He was told prognosis for success was good. Oh, there was that five-percent-chance-of-not-surviving-the-surgery thing. Steve’s choice was made simpler when told the plan was not only his best course, it was his only chance of survival.
Steve’s surgery was a success. In an operation that seems part-engineering, part-science fiction, the healthy part of Steve’s esophagus was reattached directly to his large intestine.
The plan brought remission from cancer. But remission is a temporary state, lasting until one’s more natural passing or only until one’s next check-up. Physical relief often fails to heal one’s emotional state. It’s difficult at first to live comfortably without a stomach.
Remember those one or two glasses of wine? Steve did, along with pain killers. You can easily guess the next part of the story.
Recovery is a marathon race, not a sprint
Addiction, rehabilitation, relapse. The cycle recurs.
In recovery, whether from physical, emotional or chemically-induced pain, family and friends—even productive work—can help. But in the end, we all heal alone. Like Steve.
Berkeley’s Golden Gate Fields, “Where the Bay Comes to Play,” was near Steve’s home. He had long been a casual fan of horseracing even before cancer.
A racetrack can be a dangerous place for someone trying to overcome an addiction. There are the congratulatory drinks after your horse wins, the consoling ones when your horse loses, and the ones that fill up the time between races during a long day at the track.
“So I bought the racehorse, I travelled, I did all these things to kind of create a story going forward,” explains Steve. “All that positive energy helped get me through this really, really tough experience. And the horse was so inspirational. But I was still at a really tough point in my life.
“I ended up numbing myself too much. I had to go to rehab to fix the addiction I had to pain meds. But I continued drinking at the racetrack. So, at first the track became kind of a negative place for me.”
Addicts know, or they learn, family and friends embrace you when you undergo rehabilitation after addiction. They distance themselves from you if you relapse.
Steve would relapse one time too many.
His most painful losses would be his most intimate: his wife and daughter.
The grace of “Killer Graces”
The title of Steve’s new book is the eponymous name of that first horse he bought into with three other partners; a filly, Killer Graces. The book’s title is intended as a double entendre, a reference to both the name of that first horse Steve co-owned and to the life lessons he learned when confronted 13 years ago with…well, let’s call it what it is…the possibility of his own early death.
Killer Graces won her very first race, the Cinderella Stakes, a maiden sprint at Hollywood Park, in 2011. She showed promise winning the G1 Hollywood Starlet and would win a third graded stakes that year.
She would earn a decent 3-4-1 record and over $450,000 on the racetrack, but she was a daughter of Congaree, winner of 10 graded stakes. That royal breeding meant she showed greater promise as a broodmare. She sold at the Sept. 2012 Fasig-Tipton mixed sale for $850,000 to an agent for the Yoshida family. Japan’s famous racing clan owns Northern Farm in Hokkaido, the center of the Japanese breeding industry. Her progeny race, and win, there.
Killer Graces’ racing success restored some of Steve’s flagging emotional energy. He bought into more racehorses—Steve now is a co-owner of eight.
“Killer Graces just sort of fit into my life because it happened with such coincidence. I was reaching for anything. I didn’t grow up with horses. I followed some friends who owned horses and was their guest to big events like the Kentucky Oaks. I didn’t want to be people’s guest anymore; I wanted to be the one who was part of the horse.”
Now, Steve’s is not one of those “Seabiscuit” stories where a horse magically brings comfort to their humans’ difficult lives. Given her earnings and sale price—over $1.3 million in a little over two years—it’s easy to see the initial attraction investing in racehorses held for Steve was financial.
But financial prosperity couldn’t help him in his previous life; it didn’t help him in this newly emerging one either.
“I continued drinking in celebration at the racetrack. But the horses were the exciting thing. The horses and the horseracing was the only true excitement I had in this world,” he said.
Recovery from serious illness and addiction is like turning around an aircraft carrier…it happens very slowly. Steve continued his self-defeating behavior for another two years and ultimately paid the price, losing much of what remained of that perfect life.
It’s difficult to know precisely why one becomes addicted. Steve believes there was a genetic component to his addiction. What he did know is he had lost his grip on the life he had and needed to craft a new life, a new identity, one not dependent on what was or what is, but one creating what can be.
The success of Killer Graces and his new role as someone intimately involved with something he loved helped restore confidence. That led to tentacles of success reaching into other areas of Steve’s newly emerging life.
Steve reached back into meaningful parts of his past to help move forward. He re-connected with his high school sweetheart and they again became friends.
People encouraged Steve to write about his experiences, the good, the bad and the very ugly. He took up that task in the book that would become Killer Graces. Initially started as a part-memoir, part-therapy exercise, Steve’s book matured into a guide to help in mentoring others who suffered the same illness, the same addictions he suffered.
“It definitely was therapeutic for me to get this out there. So many people have disclosed stuff they don’t tell anyone. There’s something to just letting it out, telling people ‘I’m not as strong as I think I am.’
“Everyone’s one step away from nothing. I found that out when I got my cancer diagnosis. That’s the message of the book: ‘You’re gonna get through things, but it’s gonna be tough. Enjoy the present, the right now.’ I wanted to say: ‘I’m flexible, I can adjust, I can have bad days now. So can you.’”
Steve became involved in a nationwide group that assists people afflicted with his same or a similar illness.
“I’ve found helping others helped me and everyone around me. You won’t believe how many people have called and disclosed to me all sorts of serious private stuff. I’m a safe person. I’m not judgmental. Everyone puts up their front, a persona they create, but we all have things going on.”
As difficult as it can be to understand why one begins an addiction, it can be even more difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand why one stops.
Racing success, pride in ownership, adding old “new” friends to his life; whatever the reason, Steve eventually achieved sobriety—knock on wood—seven years ago.
While his initial interest in racehorses may have been in their profit potential, sobriety changed that outlook, too. At first he was nervous around Thoroughbreds.
“For some reason things changed once I got sober seven years ago. My energy changed. I began to connect with the horses…in a weird way. I can’t even explain it. My energy is better. I used to feel uncomfortable around them. They were so skittish. Now, I can get close to them. I can look in their eyes. I can pet them. Now, I’ll be coming around the corner and their head pops out of their stall. I think Wow, there’s more to this. These horses are amazing animals.
“Now, I love the whole process, from breeding to racing. Now, I’ve gravitated more to loving the horse than loving the financial part. These are athletes. They’re trying as hard as they can. They don’t know they’re not the biggest or the favorite. They just go for it. It’s changed my mentality about the whole experience, about life.”
A regular at the barns until the pandemic struck earlier this year, Steve began to hang out with horses like the great Songbird, not just the owners and the human denizens of the racetrack.
A life transformed
That new life we learned about at the beginning of this story is the one Steve lives today, that one and more. He married that high school sweetheart, re-united with his daughter and now has a second child.
“I’ve got a beautiful wife who was my high school first. I’ve got a stepson—I never thought I’d be able to have any other children. I’ve got my daughter. When I was sick, she was just a year old; she turned 14 last week. I almost didn’t get to see any of this and none of this was going to be here, so I’m just very, very grateful,” he reflected.
“I didn’t want to be in this position. I just wanted to be happy. And I’ve found happiness now that’s greater than I’ve ever had.”
Steve Melen scored his half-century birthday this past January. To celebrate his unexpected gift, he flew with 40 friends to Mexico and had a huge celebration of life at Cabo San Lucas.
Steve has discovered joy, not only in his own life, but in the lessons from his life he can use to help others. Today, he’s just a phone call away from mentoring anyone experiencing the same problems he’s experienced: Marci, the frightened woman in Michigan; Kevin, who spent his day Googling his survival chances; Pat, the Iraq war veteran who was “chipper till the end.”
Stomach cancer is not as uncommon as it is unspoken. It is estimated 27,600 mostly male, mostly older people will be diagnosed in the coming year. Nearly half will die of the disease.
Steve celebrates his now “good racing luck” every year when he journeys to Washington D.C. on Advocacy Day, a day set aside each year in February when ordinary citizens and citizen groups stalk the halls of the Congress to meet with Representatives and Senators, to lobby their particular cause.Steve’s is pursuing funding for his rarely talked about, ungraceful killer disease.
“I’m trying to sell the story, get a hook to let them know that I, we, need funding to continue, to increase. I’ve been given a chance to give back. I think that’s one purpose of the book: ‘How can I give back in a broader way than just telling my story talking just to individual people all the time?’ The book is a tool for that.
“I’m like the longest survivor out of almost any cancer survivor that’s my stage in the country. It’ll be 13 years end of January. I’m really taking advantage of life, going out and doing as much as I can. I’m living right now. I don’t want to have people wait until they know they are dying to start living.”
The funding Steve helps get appropriated comes from a Department of Defense pool for various issues. Starting out with only about $8 million seven years ago, that pool is around $100 million today. Steve fights a different fight now, to hold onto and increase his illness’ share of the pool.
“Stomach cancer now manages to get around $10 million; it was like half a million before we started lobbying. So I go there now and represent Debbie’s Dream Foundation [a non-profit devoted to stomach cancer research] on Advocacy Day. There’s a hundred people who are part of our group doing these meetings. There’s like 30 stomach cancer survivors there. A third of them probably won’t live through the next year or two. It’s so sad.”
Steve knows he could have been one of those fatalities. So he cedes some of his life’s time to others in repayment for the gift of that precious thing horologists measure, that gift of time.
Oh, and about those questions we mentioned at the beginning. Yes! Steve can now eat just about anything, but his favorite food remains pizza…with extra cheese, please. In fact, his biggest challenge is gaining and maintaining his weight, a “problem” many of us might envy.
His first owner experience at this year’s Breeders’ Cup was, like his life, a mix of emotions. “I just felt happy to be there,” Steve says in a grateful tone.
Sure, he felt disappointment when Horologist didn’t win her race. But he felt excitement the following evening at Keeneland’s Fasig-Tipton mixed sale when one of his horses, Motion Emotion, drew twice the price expected by Steve and his partners. Down but back up again, just like life can be. For Steve, for anyone.
Steve’s new joyful life hasn’t erased the pain and possible future hardship that began in his former life. Problems would return—they can to us all—and Steve would lose his gall bladder. But the experience of recovery from his first “race” and the aid of his “racing connections”—his new family—gave him the strength to run his latest race knowing he needed to reach the finish line free of fear, free of alcohol and drugs, free to continue to offer grace to others, to help them win their own race against early killers.
Steve and his family will spend Thanksgiving Day in Panama, soaking up the sun and, yes, feasting on freshly caught fish. It will be a leisurely day they’ve earned in the hardest possible way.
Steve Melen has no stomach and no gall bladder, but his attitude and advocacy demonstrate we don’t need guts to have courage, to display grace, to give thanks for the gift that is our daily life.
Killer Graces by Steve Melen (with Matthew Hose) is currently available in paperback for $19.95 at stevemelen.com. An audiobook is expected in early 2021.