Mike and Melia Tourangeau, photo by Adam Finkle
She is a high-powered CEO–a cultivated pianist, with a passion for classical music and fine cooking. He is a former market researcher and avid outdoorsman from Michigan, who spent his weekends hunting and fishing.
eHarmony would never have seen this coming.
Still, Melia and Michael Tourangeau dated, got engaged, planned a wedding between chemo treatments, and forged a love story that would culminate in the kind of commitment most people never have to test.
But it all started with a mundane meeting.
“I had never lived in a place with fewer single men,” Melia says. She moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., for a job as Education Director for Grand Rapids Opera; she was in her early 20s. So when a friend told her she had just met with some market research guys who were “not wearing rings,” Melia decided her nonprofit organization was in dire need of some market research. She asked a man named Mike Tourangeau to take a meeting with her.
“I used to spend my lunch hour playing hockey, and our meeting was right after lunch,” says Mike. “Even though I’d showered and all I was still nervous about body odor and sweat.”
“He sat halfway across the room,” remembers Melia.
Even at that distance, the two hit it off and Mike asked Melia to join him and some friends for after-work drinks. “We got to the bar at 5:30 and didn’t leave until 2 a.m.,” says Melia. “The next day, a bunch of us went canoeing and fly fishing. And the day after that we went ice skating. I had never done any of those things before.”
And Melia wasn’t the only one learning new things. Mike had never been to a symphony. “We went to hear Mahler’s First Symphony–the third movement is really slow and soothing. Mike fell asleep. But the fourth movement starts with a giant bang,” says Melia. So Mike had a rude awakening. When spring came, Mike invited Melia to go mountain biking. “I envisioned something leisurely,” says Melia. “No, this was serious, rocky mountain biking. A half-mile in, I started crying.”
Still they were having a lot of fun. “One day, when I was talking to my mother about what Mike and I had been doing, she said, ‘You really love this guy, don’t you?’ I had never thought about it that way. But she was right.”
Three months after they’d started seeing each other regularly, Mike traveled to Kansas City to speak at a Hallmark convention. “The room was full of people and I was at the lectern when I started to feel a little weird,” Mike recalls. “The next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital. The doctor told me I had a brain tumor the size of a grape.”
When it was removed, the biopsy showed that Mike’s tumor was a grade III anaplastic astrocytoma.
Mike called Melia from the hospital and she flew out to be with him. Together, they faced a devastating prognosis. The doctor at the Mayo Clinic told Mike he had about three years to live.
Most people would have ended it right there–they had only been seeing each other for three months.
“Mike was noble, and we broke up for about a day,” says Melia. But Mike was strong, 30 years old and in exceptional health. When he recovered from the surgery, he went back to work until he was strong enough to undergo 35 rounds of radiation. When he finished radiation the tumor would probably grow back, the doctors said, but he’d bought himself about seven years.
“It sounds terrible, but I remember calculating,’’ Melia says, “thinking, I’ll be 32 in seven years. I could stick with Mike and still have time for a whole new life.”
By January, the treatment was over. Against doctors’ wishes, Melia and Mike went ahead with a ski trip they had planned. “The first day, I think I went down the mountain twice,” she says. “Mike was skiing circles around me. At one point, he was skiing beside me and he lay all the way down on his back on the skis. “Who needs a nap when you’re skiing with Melia?” he teased.
The holiday over, they returned to work and regular doctor visits. Almost immediately, an MRI showed that Mike’s tumor was growing back. “Eventually, it was the size of a racquetball,” says Melia.
The doctors offered three options, three different courses of chemotherapy. They tried each one and all three failed. The tumor continued to grow, Mike’s 140-pound frame swelling to 200 pounds from the massive amounts of steroids necessary to control inflammation. Money was tight. He was sick all the time. He could feel himself slipping. He couldn’t work.
At this point, Mike’s choices had narrowed drastically. “He had two options,” Melia says. The doctors could remove 70 percent of the tumor, a procedure that would buy some time. But it would grow back. Or, another round of chemo had about a 10 percent chance of being effective.
Mike’s parents were pushing for the surgery. Mike had reservations. “The first operation was horrible,” he says. “I didn’t know who I was for awhile. The pain was unbelievable.” And for this second surgery to remove the larger tumor, Mike would have to be awake. The surgeons would remove part of the tumor, then test to see which part of Mike’s brain was affected, then remove a little more, inching their way around inside Mike’s skull until they had removed as much of the growth as they dared.
In addition, the amount of chemotherapy required was enormous. Because of the blood-brain barrier, Michael was receiving 10 times the usual dosage of the drugs, a dangerous course of treatment at best.
Ultimately, Mike gambled on the 10 percent round of chemo option. After his first treatment, “He cashed out his 401K, we went to Vegas with friends and partied like rock stars,” says Melia.
In six months, the tumor was growing again.
“At this point, the doctors sort of threw up their hands. They told us they didn’t know what to do.” But Mike’s dad had been digging around online. He’d heard of a drug, primarily used to treat colon cancer, that had been reported to work on astrocytoma, and he asked Mike’s doctors to give it a try.
Finally, the tumor started shrinking. On Christmas, 2000, Mike asked Melia to marry him.
Mike and Melia were married in June, 2001. A week later, he went in for his last chemo treatment. After that, he went in for an MRI every three months, then every six months. Now it’s every year and they talk about Mike’s tumor in the past tense.
Melia and Mike had two children–something they had once thought impossible. Melia was offered the top position at Utah Symphony/Utah Opera in 2008. You could say their story had a happy ending.
Except that Mike is permanently disabled. Between the chemo and the surgery, the damage to his brain is evident. The strapping man who once played ice hockey after lunch tires easily these days. He is thinner now, new lines etching his face. His short term and sequential memory is gone. He can’t remember names or numbers. He can’t remember the names of his children. “When they were babies, we had name tags on their cribs,” recalls Melia. He reads at a first-grade level because by the time he reaches the end of a page, he’s forgotten how it started.
Going back to his former career is impossible. Now he is the primary caregiver for the children. He enjoys working with his hands, for Habitat for Humanity and on the family’s own home. He still enjoys hunting and fishing. He is taking powerful anti-seizure drugs, which he will need for the rest of his life. Sitting with his wife in their home in Salt Lake City, however, there is no sense of anguish, or palpable regret. Married now for 13 years, the couple’s story may be less a happy ending than a new beginning.