Durham man won’t let brain cancer destroy his dream

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 05:49 PM

Greg Sousa has taken a big-time hit, but he’s still standing.

The 43-year-old Durham father of two has brain cancer – and a dream. He hopes to participate in the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii this fall, and he needs the public’s help.

Sousa’s world changed dramatically last year. On Father’s Day, he awoke before dawn and biked 25 miles to New Hope Landing at Jordan Lake, then completed a one-mile, open-water swim there.

Four days later, when Sousa was on a job assignment in Montgomery, Ala., he ended up in the hospital after a grand mal seizure.

“If I had that four days earlier, I would be dead, because I would have drowned [at Jordan Lake],” Sousa said.

At the hospital, doctors found a two-inch tumor in his brain.

Sousa was disoriented from the seizure and couldn’t get his bearings at first, but gradually, his senses returned.

“I was told that I had the mass in my head while I was still figuring out where I was,” Sousa said.

In July 2012, he had most of his cancer removed at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, although some malignant cells remain. Sousa is currently on chemotherapy, and will have to be monitored for the rest of his life.

But for now, Sousa has his sights on a longtime dream – the Ironman Hawaii, a demanding, world-famous triathlon held annually in Hawaii, and one of the toughest to qualify for. It involves a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

Sousa is in a contest to gain entry into Ironman, but hasn’t won yet. He needs the public to watch his video, then vote for him online. A 90-second video of Sousa can be viewed at http://bit.ly/ZRNFe3.

Sousa, an athlete since high school, has been in more than 30 triathlons since he was 23. But he’s never been to the Ironman Hawaii, which draws more media coverage than any triathlon in the world.

To qualify for Ironman Hawaii, he said, “you must perform at a certain level to earn your entry,” but Sousa hasn’t been able to do that.

However, he still has a shot at qualifying, because the contest provides for seven people to be selected whose story of hardship is compelling enough – and draws enough votes.

To be chosen, “you have to have been roughed up by life, and then you submit your story about why you think you’re worthy,” he said. “And then you become subject to public views and the public’s vote.”

Sousa will have to make it through two rounds of votes to qualify. First-round voting ends May 7, and if he doesn’t make it through that, the competition is over for him.

If he does, the second round will determine if he goes to Hawaii in October.

As part of his training, Sousa bikes from home to his job as a water resource engineer at Tetra Tech in Research Triangle Park – a 6.5-mile trip each way. He also bikes on the weekends, swims twice weekly and runs three times a week.

Sousa said his treatment has created “no cognitive deficits,” and he’s confident he can become fit enough to compete in the Ironman.

“Before cancer struck, Ironman Hawaii was just on my wish list,” Sousa said. “I had achieved [the Boston Marathon], so I had to build my run to a good form. I wanted to achieve Hawaii. That was exciting to me as an athlete.”

“Now as we throw in brain cancer,” he said, “there’s this huge emotional component to being part of that fabric.”

If Sousa makes it to Hawaii, he’ll compete against 1,500 other athletes – most of whom have no medical problems. But that’s OK with him.

“[The organizers] celebrate people who are able to take a hit and stand back up,” he said.

Sousa returned to work seven weeks after surgery, and continues to work full time in addition to his training regimen.

He’s grateful to be alive, and especially thankful for the support of his wife, son and daughter.

Sousa continues to live with a hopeful heart, believing he can be a contender.

“This is important to me for two reasons,” he said. “One is to fulfill an athletic dream. The other big one is the magic of survivorship – to prove that anything is possible.”