​By the time Clayton Treska entered San Diego State University as a 30-year-old freshman in August 2010, he'd already been through enough ups and downs for multiple lifetimes.

Growing up in Atlanta, a small kid with big ears and big teeth who was relentlessly bullied, Treska had fallen in with a tough crowd. At 13, he was expelled from school and sent to a disciplinary academy.

"It was a rough environment where you had to fight every day to get by," he says. "At 16 I came out with a real chip on my shoulder." 

After a couple of arrests, including one for drunk driving, he enlisted in the Marines to avoid a jail sentence.

Treska thrived in the military, graduating from boot camp at the top of his class. "It was an opportunity for me to straighten out my life and I put my mind and heart into it," he remembers.

But in 2001, after four years of service, Treska was ready to leave the Marines. Then the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened; he reenlisted. "I wanted to fight terrorism and protect my country," says the 6'2" 250-pound veteran.

As part of a counter-intelligence unit in Iraq, he did just that: "I conducted over 170 interrogations, captured 21 terrorists, broke apart a dozen terrorist cells, and ceased terrorist operations while in my area of operation."

 

The Next Battle: Cancer

In 2008, Treska was a decorated staff sergeant living in San Diego between deployments when he noticed a mass in his groin area. It turned out to be Stage 1 testicular cancer. After a half-dozen rounds of chemo, the lifelong athlete began training to compete in triathlons.

But at a meeting with his oncologist in July 2009, the news was grim. A lymph node on Treska's collarbone that had grown to the size of a baseball turned out to be a return of his cancer. And scans showed that the malignancy had spread throughout his body.

At 29, Treska was told he had only months to live.

Determined that he would live whatever time he had left on his own terms, Treska signed up for a half-Ironman triathlon taking place in Hawaii the following summer.

The treatment for his cancer was at the time experimental, involving high doses of chemotherapy followed by multiple stem cell transplants from his own harvested stem cells. Treska would lose more than 100 pounds—but through it all he kept up his training.

"At first I had only enough strength to go from the bed to the bathroom and then to the hallway," he says. "When I got a little stronger I was doing laps around the nurses' station." 

In June 2010, accompanied by a couple dozen members of the supporters he'd dubbed "Team Treska," he left his hospital bed and flew to Hawaii. In just under seven-and-a-half hours he completed the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

 

A 'Thirst for Knowledge'

"My doctors said what I was able to accomplish was impossible," recalls Treska. "They called it a miracle. But while a miracle was great for me, it doesn't do any good for anybody else."

As a counter-intelligence agent, his sole purpose was collecting and understanding information.

"Now I wanted to bring that thirst for knowledge to exploring exercise and nutritional science to see if I could figure out a way to help other patients going through cancer treatment have the same kind of success as I'd had," he says. "I thought that getting a college degree was the best way to begin to do that."

Treska was living in an outpatient room at the San Diego naval hospital and training for an even more demanding race—the Ironman World Championship—when he heard about a way he could get access to the knowledge and education he was seeking: The San Diego State University President's Military Admission Program provides direct undergraduate admission for highly qualified active-duty military who will soon be separating from the service.

With financial support from the GI Bill, Treska moved out of the hospital and straight into a campus apartment adjacent to the Student Veterans House, a gathering place for military-affiliated students that's the first of its kind in the U.S.

For all of Treska's skills, he found college daunting at first. "I was 30 years old, a military veteran and the first one in my family to go to college," he says. "It was a shock. I didn't know anything about being a college student, from what a syllabus was to how to figure out my GPA or register for classes."

It was during student orientation that Treska found his guide: Randi McKenzie, an assistant dean for Student Affairs at San Diego State. "Randi saw that I was by myself and she struck up a conversation," he says.

"I told her about my situation, that I was having challenges getting acclimated and that I would be competing in the Ironman in six weeks. She said, 'whatever we need to do to get you across the finish line, it will be done.'"

 

Access + Academic Support

One key thing McKenzie did was introduce Treska to Dr. Scott Tinley, a two-time Ironman World Champion who taught sports psychology and humanities courses at San Diego State.

"He really showed me how to balance academics and sports and excel at both," Treska says. "I didn't take classes with Scott until I was a junior. In the beginning, it was just me stopping by his office for advice."

Treska would find that all his professors offered that kind of access.

"The faculty at San Diego State really takes the time to teach you about all aspects of life," he says. "It's a total education. That was vital in my transformation from a Marine who fought a war against terrorism and a patient who'd fought cancer to a student gathering the skills to help others fight their own battles. " 

With a regimen that included waking up at 4 a.m. to train at the Aztec Recreation Center before his classes, Treska would go on to successfully complete the Ironman in October—15 months after he'd been told he had terminal cancer.

But there was little time to celebrate. "I had to fly straight home for midterms the next day," he says.

 

Transformed: From Patient to Healthcare Innovator

Even before Treska graduated SDSU in 2014 with a bachelor's of science in exercise and nutritional sciences, he was making an impact. Throughout his college years, and continuing today, he has volunteered as an advocate for cancer patients.

"I talk to people about what had helped me cope with things like anxiety, depression, headaches, fatigue," he says. "It's a lot better to hear this stuff from someone who's been through treatment and come out the other side than read about it in a book."

It was commitment like this that led Treska to be awarded the California State University's highest academic honor to students, the CSU Trustees' Award, which he was given in 2013; he credits Colleen Conniff from SDSU Financial Aid and Scholarships for making the connection to the scholarship.

Today, Treska is an executive at UC San Diego's Moores Cancer Center, transformed from patient to innovator at the very institution where he was treated. While doctors there eradicate disease, he's put in place programs that heal the whole person—from yoga and meditation to group therapy sessions and cooking workshops.

Treska's long-term goals include connecting the Moores Cancer Center with the SDSU exercise and nutritional science department and becoming CEO of a healthcare system; in fall 2017 he'll begin working toward his MBA. Meanwhile, he returns to the SDSU campus to guest lecture at Dr. Tinley's classes on topics like overcoming adversity.

"We don't always know why we're dealt the hand we're dealt," Treska says. "But we can bring meaning to it by our actions after the fact. That's what has always sustained me."

Though he's now in full remission, Treska has never lost his sense of urgency.

"If you want to pursue a goal or a dream and you're sitting there saying, 'I'm going to start one day, maybe tomorrow,' I say, 'start right now. At this very moment in time, what are you doing to bring your dream to fruition?'"