A 38-year-old mother of three from Lehi, Melanie Pearson Day, has been diagnosed with stage IV terminal breast cancer. Doctors have told her she has two to five years to live. Five years is possible, but 10 years is unlikely.
Despite that awful death sentence, for the past week, Day has felt like the luckiest person alive.
Day learned more than a month ago that she and her husband, Preston, would be checking off the No. 1 item on her bucket list by attending last Thursday’s basketball game between arch-rivals Duke and North Carolina at iconic Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Her weeklong experience in the Tar Heel State surpassed anything she could have imagined. For Day, it might have been the perfect week.
“I’ve dreamed of this for 25 years,” said Day, a former BYU women’s basketball player. “I grew up thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go to this game someday?’ When I put it on my bucket list, on my blog, never did I actually think I’d get tickets to it. Then I got tickets and I went to the game, but it was so much more than that. It’s like a basketball fantasy.”
Day attended closed basketball practices at both Duke and North Carolina (the schools are separated by just 10 miles); had in-depth conversations with legendary coaches Mike Krzyzewski (affectionately known as Coach K) and Roy Williams; met the players on both teams; chatted with former UNC stars Eric Montross and Tyler Hansbrough; toured the campuses in Durham and Chapel Hill; handed out doughnuts to the Duke students, known as the Cameron Crazies, who had been camping out for a month to get into Cameron Indoor Stadium for this game; went to the pep rally, where Coach K addressed the Cameron Crazies at the Krzyzewskiville tent city the night before the game; received a closet full of Duke basketball gear; hung out on the set with ESPN’s College Gameday crew of Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Jay Williams and Seth Greenberg before tipoff; and took plenty of pictures.
And, yes, she watched No. 18 Duke defeat No. 8 North Carolina in a thriller, 86-78, that was seen by a TV television audience of more than 4 million viewers.
“We sat three rows up from the Duke bench,” said Day, who sported an “Another Day, Another Bucket” Nike T-shirt at the game. “I sat next to Coach K’s grandson. (Former Duke star) J.J. Redick was in my row.”
A veritable Who’s Who of Duke basketball — Austin Rivers, Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner, to name a few — attended the game as well as former NBA star David Robinson, whose son, Justin, plays for the Blue Devils.
And Melanie and Preston Day were right in the middle of it all.
“This is the game everyone comes to,” Melanie said. “I was definitely just soaking up the experience, trying to enjoy every minute.”
Now she has an inspirational story she can tell her children, 6-year-old Allison, 4-year-old Marley and 3-year-old Fletcher.
Fulfilling this dream required the BYU women’s and men’s teams coming together for a common cause, and, of course, a big assist from Krzyzewski.
Day played only one season for the Cougars, in 2001-02, after competing for three years at UCLA and then serving an LDS mission to Portugal. Day transferred to BYU after her mission and helped the Cougars advance to their first-ever NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance in 2002.
“Mel was a great all-around player. She could shoot and pass and she was smart,” said BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins. “She’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached.”
Since leaving BYU, Day has been a strong supporter of the Cougar women’s basketball program.
In 2013, when Day was 10 weeks pregnant with son Fletcher, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Day approached her battle with cancer the same way she played basketball — with toughness and a positive attitude.
While pregnant, she underwent chemotherapy and a mastectomy.
“It was pretty rough but I killed two birds with one stone, I guess,” Day said.
In 2014, Day was declared cancer-free. But the disease returned and metastasized into other parts of her body.
Day started a blog, fiveyearstolive.org, to chronicle her experience.
“I realized people responded to me sharing my story and personal insights into this journey,” she explained. “It’s therapeutic to write.”
In one post last September, Day, a longtime Duke basketball fan, created a bucket list of things she wants to do and accomplish before she dies. At the top of the list was attending what she considers the biggest rivalry in all of sports — the Duke-North Carolina basketball game.
When Judkins and BYU men’s coach Dave Rose learned about Day’s wish, via an email from someone who is familiar with Day’s plight, they immediately decided to find a way to send her to that game.
Both Judkins and Rose know UNC’s Williams, but they don’t know Krzyzewski very well.
“I was sure I could get her tickets to the Duke-Carolina game (at the Dean Smith Center) in Chapel Hill,” Rose said. “But (Day) wanted the Cameron Indoor experience.”
Judkins wrote a letter to Krzyzewski, detailing Day’s ordeal with cancer and her desire to watch the Blue Devils play the Tar Heels. Then he hoped for the best.
Tickets to that rivalry game are nearly impossible to get. For this particular game, people were selling tickets for $17,000 each.
“Within a week, I got a phone call from Coach K’s secretary,” Judkins said. “She said they read the letter and were touched by it. They said they wanted to help any way they could.”
With the tickets secured, the next task for Judkins and Rose was raising money to send the Days to North Carolina.
Rose knows Day because his daughter, Chanell Rose Reichner, was Day’s teammate at BYU. Besides, Dave Rose is always supporting those stricken with cancer. He was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor cancer in 2009 — a rare form of cancer and the only type that can be successfully treated.
Around Christmas time, Rose presented to his team the opportunity to help the Day family. “Every one of them wanted to get involved,” Rose said.
The players and coaches from the men’s and women’s teams donated money.
Judkins invited Day to the locker room after BYU’s victory over Saint Mary’s on Jan. 5 at the Marriott Center to tell her in front of his team about the tickets to the Feb. 9 game between Duke and North Carolina. Then he presented her with an envelope filled with about $1,500 to cover airfare and other expenses.
Preston had been told about the tickets beforehand. But Melanie had no idea.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I was impressed that these poor college students, who can’t have normal jobs to make money, the fact that they would do this to help make this happen. I don’t even know the players on the men’s team. That’s what really blew me away.”
When people learned the news of Day’s upcoming trip, others in the community, and someone from Las Vegas, also made donations to help offset the costs.
Day flew to North Carolina a week ago Sunday with her friend and former UCLA teammate, Jamie Friesen. Preston Day, an attorney, couldn’t leave until Wednesday.
Monday night, Day received an unexpected phone call from Krzyzewski.
“I about flipped out,” she said, laughing. “He said how excited he was to have me there. Coach K invited me to Duke’s closed practice Tuesday. We had a really good conversation. The fact that he would take the time for me, a complete stranger who has no ties with the school, was unbelievable. He talked about being involved with Cancer Center here at Duke and he encouraged me to go visit it and consider seeing doctors there. You could tell he was very involved and very concerned about it.”
After practice, the Blue Devil players, including former Lone Peak star and Duke freshman Frank Jackson, introduced themselves to Day.
On Wednesday, the day before the game, Day was invited to attend North Carolina’s practice. Her brother, Andy Pearson, lives in North Carolina, and his boss played for the Tar Heels. Coach Williams talked to her during practice.
“He’s a genuine guy,” Day said of Williams. “It was really cool. He talked about his experience with cancer a little bit and what he does for the cancer community.”
Day met all of the UNC players, and guard Joel Berry challenged her to a game of P-I-G.
“I beat him. It was pretty funny. I have it on video,” she said. “The players were watching and laughing. I was wearing jeans and my hair wasn’t even up.”
So going into Thursday’s game, Day knew the two teams about as well as anyone could.
“It’s such a rare experience to get on the inside of both programs,” she said.
Having been a longtime Duke fan who grew up Southern California, Day was hoping for a Blue Devil victory Thursday, especially since Coach K was the one who arranged for her to have the tickets. While Day has always respected Williams and the Carolina program, she never had much interest in the Tar Heels.
But that all changed last week.
“After meeting so many great people on their staff and the players at North Carolina, I love them and I’m a fan for life,” Day said. “I am a fan for life of both of these programs.”
The two teams delivered another classic game Thursday. Going into the contest, Duke and North Carolina had split their 96 previous meetings, 48-48, and had scored the exact same number of total points (7,437) in those games.
Afterward, the Days spent time talking with the players. Duke’s 6-foot-11 freshman, Harry Giles, regarded as the top high school player in the country last season, approached Day.
“He told me, ‘You’re a real inspiration to us. Thank you for coming,’” she said. “It was really sweet that he would say that. Both programs are so classy. They were so kind and genuine.”
Like Rose, both Krzyzewski and Williams serve on the board of Coaches vs. Cancer, a nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
When late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s, Valvano received treatment at Duke’s Cancer Institute. Krzyzewski spent a lot of time with Valvano and the two became close friends before Valvano passed away.
“Coach K is heavily involved with the cancer community,” Day said. “He told us he gets thousands of requests for tickets from people whose son is dying or uncle is sick. He gets this all the time. He makes 100 phone calls to people in dire circumstances. For whatever reason, he decided that he would respond to this request. He could have given me the tickets and been done with it. And I would have been ecstatic. But he went far beyond that. He’s just a good guy who does good things. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of one of them.”
Krzyzewski has dealt with health issues of his own. Thursday marked his second game on the bench after sitting out most of January following back surgery.
“He’s a classy guy,” Judkins said of Coach K. “When somebody has a program like he has, it starts at the top. He reads stuff people send him and he made an effort. That’s why his program is as good as it is. That he would do this for Mel meant a lot to me. I’ve gained so much respect for him because of this.”
Rose was involved in fighting cancer long before his own diagnosis. The goal of Coaches vs. Cancer is to reach out to those who are suffering.
“It’s a disease and we want to do everything we can to cure cancer,” Rose said. “But if we can’t cure it, I think there’s a united effort to try to help people feel better while they’re fighting it.”
Rose knows the devastation that cancer inflicts on patients and their families.
“It hits you, flips you upside down and changes everything. It’s real. And it goes on day after day after day,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of things that (his wife) Cheryl and I have done to try to help people and then we go on with our lives. Then those people are still fighting. It can be overwhelming. But I believe there are great people in the world that want to help ease others’ burdens. In this situation with Melanie, it was amazing. Every single player and every coach in our program was in.”
The day after the Duke-North Carolina game, Day felt worn down but she remained in good spirits, basking in the glow of her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It was a week of nonstop excitement. I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster for a few days,” she said. “I feel exhausted from the excitement.”
Day’s cancer treatment involves receiving injections once a month and taking pills daily, and she gets scans regularly.
“I feel healthy enough to be active as opposed to being in bed all day from treatments and being too tired to do anything,” Day said. “I’m just hoping to delay the growth of my disease as long as possible.”
Day’s doctor is planning for her to undergo chemotherapy again at some point.
“I don’t know if that's my plan. It depends on how much time it will give me and how great the results are,” Day said. “After going through it before, I don’t know if I’ll do it again. The treatment I’m doing right now is pretty easy. I have hair. It doesn’t look like I have cancer. I feel really good.”
For now, Day wants to spend all the time she can with her family and live each moment to the fullest.
Day wants to share her story to remind everyone that even amid tragedy and trials, people's efforts to rally around those who are struggling can produce miracles. She is grateful to the women’s and men’s programs at BYU as well as the Duke and North Carolina programs.
“For them to do that, I wish I could reciprocate and give something back,” she said. “The best I can do is to pay it forward and share this message that there’s a lot of good people out there. As a cancer patient, I’ve been the recipient of a lot. I have seen firsthand the good that so many people do and the good they’ve done for me.”
Day is also grateful to her parents for watching the kids while she was away.
After watching Duke and North Carolina play at Cameron Indoor, something that once seemed improbable, Day can cross that off her bucket list.
“Of all the worldly things I could do with my time left, that’s was it,” Day said, “and I did it. I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”