Competing in triathlons is never easy. That’s kind of the point.
Still, when Steve Dang steps up to the starting line at Tri California’s Triathlon At Pacific Grove this weekend, he will have taken a more difficult, and more unusual route there than all his competitors.
Let’s start with the fact he is doing it without a stomach.
The youth pastor at Calvary Church in Los Gatos and San Jose resident underwent preemptive stomach removal surgery in March of 2014 after losing both his father and sister to a rare, undetectable form of stomach cancer. Competing in the race, his first Olympic-distance triathlon since his surgery, is an important milestone to Dang.
“I want to recover as much of my life as I can,” Dang said.
Before he had even turned 10 years old, both the death of his 38-year-old father shortly followed by the death of his only 22-year-old sister happened very suddenly. Both started experiencing pain and difficulty swallowing and after just a short period of time, were gone. It was not until later that doctors identified their cancer as hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC).
Caused by a gene mutation, the form of cancer which only affects 1 in 500,000 people, runs in Dang’s family. Doctors have told Dang he was just the 350th confirmed case in the world.
“Once you start showing symptoms or it starts showing up on tests, you only have about a year to live,” Dang said knowing firsthand how his father and sister were affected.
When it came time to make the decision about whether or not to remove his stomach, Dang said that he wrestled with the choice, knowing how much it would change his life. But there was someone very important to him who helped him make his decision. His daughter, who at the time was only two years old.
“With each one of our kids… they all have a 50/50 chance of getting it… It was really important for me to walk through this for my daughter,” Dang said, knowing that he may have to guide her through this process one day.
Even though eating and getting nutrition, once a simple mindless task, is now much more difficult, Dang is confident that he made the right decision. He said that he is getting a chance to change the story, a story of death and loss.
“What happened with them is gonna be a different story for me… I get to tell a different story to my daughter and to give her a different kind of hope,” he said.
Within that story, is his love for competing in triathlons. After getting into the sport in 2010 to get healthier and lose weight, Dang found a way to exercise with a purpose.
“I had a really good time with it and it just kind of got me hooked,” he said.
After being unable to compete in a Tri California’s Wildflower race last year due to additional health complications and a slew of hospital visits that left Dang feeling like he may not make it, this upcoming race is a new milestone that he is ready to accomplish.
“I’m gonna tackle this thing and really for me, going through my mind right now is, you know, is finishing this face. [It’s] gonna be just me recovering as much of my life as I can.”