Twelve years ago, Cliff Melnick was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Today, his cancer is under control and he’s hoping to eradicate the disease for good.
Since his initial diagnosis, Melnick has channeled the fight within to advocate for people with cancer and help improve their quality of life. It’s a story that takes on a bigger importance during Movember, a month dedicated to raising awareness of men’s health issues including cancer.
Melnick first showed signs of illness in 2006, with medical tests showing high levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a possible sign of prostate cancer.
“After 50, you should have your PSA checked every year. It’s not very invasive. It’s a routine blood test,” Melnick said.
For a healthy man, a normal PSA level is between three and four. When Melnick was tested in 2006, he was at 16. Two years later, he was at 32. Something was wrong.
By 2008, Melnick was officially diagnosed with prostate cancer. After having a tough time finding treatment, Melnick went to Edmonton and stayed with family while battling the disease.
Melnick’s family has a history of prostate cancer. His father had it. So did his grandfather. Since Melnick was diagnosed with prostate cancer, both of his brothers have been diagnosed. His mother suffered from cancer as well. Melnick’s first oncologist was the same specialist who treated his dad.
“My father had gone through [Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton], which is a big centre there. That’s also where my mother went for her cancers,” he said.
“They asked me at first, ‘Have you been studying up?’ I go, ‘No. I went through it with my father and retained a lot of the information.”
Melnick underwent nine months of treatment to lower his PSA levels and keep the beast at bay. Later treatment showed some spots on Melnick’s lymph nodes - four months of weekly blood tests and a change in medication “knocked it out of me,” Melnick said.
Since diagnosis, Melnick underwent radiation treatment and three rounds of chemotherapy.
The nature of his illness means Melnick will never truly be in remission. He takes pills daily to counteract the cancer and undergoes a chemo injection every month. He’s in regular contact with a team of specialists about care and looking after the illness. Since his original diagnosis, Melnick has had five separate cancer scares.
“I asked the oncologist how long I’m going to be on this, and he said, ‘The way things are, you’ll be on it for life, to keep it at bay,’” he said.
“They gave me so much radiation. They gave me the maximum and I can have no more, because it would turn me into Swiss cheese.”
The first cancer advocacy Melnick did was through the Underwear Affair, a fundraiser for further research into men’s cancers. In Alberta, Melnick and other advocates generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause.
Melnick has taken the visual metaphor and ran with it through other campaigns, often dressing up in costumes that include underwear as a tip of the hat to the fundraiser.
Melnick began involvement with Relay for Life not long after finishing treatment, serving as the chair of survivors with the event. He showed up to the events as “Captain Underpants”, a nod to his days of involvement with the Underwear Affair.
Closer to home, Melnick raised money for the chemotherapy ward at Flin Flon General Hospital through selling hand-made wristbands, made by Melnick and family friend Noah van Caeseele. The campaign has brought puzzles, furniture, a fireplace and other touches of home to the chemo room. Melnick canvassed businesses on Main Street to help fundraise fixes at the chemo room.
Melnick is emotional talking about his community work. He’s grateful for the support he’s received, both through his journey with cancer and his subsequent turn as an advocate.
“I have a lot of support here. That is so important - family, friends, relatives. When I’ve done my fundraisers, my name’s been in the paper. When I’ve done my campaigning up and down Main Street, I’ve had people ask me questions and I did my best to answer.”
Melnick is always coming up with new ideas to help raise awareness or funds to shut down cancer. His next idea is to hold a large-scale event in April for Cancer Awareness Month. He hopes to hold an event similar to the Culture Days’ Dancing Down Main Street, aiming to dance cancer out of town.
“There’s not one person that has not been touched by cancer, whether it’s in the family or a friend. Everybody knows someone who has gone through it or is going through it.”