We all face them: moments in our lives when we stand up and fight — or flee. In the face of cancer, Melanie Clarke chose the former and overcame cancer in the only way she knew how.
When Melanie (Mel) Clarke heard those three words – “You have cancer” – she didn’t cry. She wasn’t afraid of the diagnosis. She wasn’t sad or scared – she was angry. Storming from the room, she felt only rage.
And who could blame her? Only 35 years old, this was not in the plan. Taking a year away from competitive weightlifting to heal an injury, she had decided to use that athletic downtime to have her first child, a son. Mel had normal thirty-something things on her mind: weaning a baby, getting back in shape, and settling into a new normal as a mother.
But cancer? Seriously?
“With tears in her eyes, the doctor told me I had cancer,” she told me. “I marched out of the doctor’s office. I was just so fucking angry.”
Angry? Yes. Surprised? Not really. Mel had had a sense that something was wrong with her body.
I’ve known Mel for 15 years. She has been a friend and teammate. She is loyal, determined, talented, an excellent dancer. She is funny. But more than anything, she is one seriously tough lady.
Being an athlete is a huge part of her identity. To perform at a consistently high level she had learned to be in touch with her body, which she jokes is shaped like a “bridge”, which I believe is nod to her height (or lake thereof) and stability.
Community in competition
For as long as she can remember, competition has played a central role. It is a part of her life that she embraced early on.
“I started competitive gymnastics and swimming at the age of six,” she says. “And I had to choose at the age of eight which sport I was going to do. But even then, competition never felt like a stress on me. It was a sense of community — of friendship.”
It was that community that she would rely on in all the iterations of her life. From youth to university, the built-in friendships that come with a team atmosphere provided the structure and support she so desperately needed.
Health and wellness became her guides. Not one for using agendas or schedules, it’s difficult for her to set and achieve goals in her work and family life. But when she has a health and fitness goal, the rest of her life falls in line.
So, it was no surprise that after retiring from soccer (she jokes that she is no longer able to move laterally) and returning from travels first to England and then Ghana (where she volunteered for an organization collecting data for the Commission on Human Rights in the most northern and remote region of the country), she was missing her athletic community and the solid footing that provided. She was lost.
Her brother, Ed, was into CrossFit at the time. Sensing her lack of direction, he suggested she give it a try.
“I really thought it was something that she would not only excel at, but really enjoy,” said Ed.
Her immediate reaction: no way, never.
“I’m notorious for being really good at things without having to try hard,” she said. “And CrossFit is notorious for having to try hard even if you’re not good at it. Plus, I was thinking group fitness: I’m going to have to wear hot pink and fit into an esthetic that I don’t want to fit into. And I didn’t really believe that it was a sport.”
Then Mel watched a video that made her do a 180. Three months later, she was hooked.
The learning curve wasn’t as steep as she had originally feared. In her elite soccer career, she had not been taught how to use her body properly. True to form, she learned fast, picking up core skills like how to do a squat and safely navigate a barbell.
She progressed quickly through the competitive ranks, and after only 2 years in the spot, she became Nova Scotia’s top Crossfitter in 2014.
Trusting your gut
Through CrossFit she became exposed to the world of competitive weightlifting. She gravitated to this like a moth to a flame. She conquered national competitions and had her eye on the international field. Then injury struck.
As a competitive athlete, Mel’s staple was playing right on the edge. It’s what made her such a great soccer player. But that style, attacking at a million miles an hour, put her right on the edge of injury as well. While slowing down on the field was never an option, she became less inclined to communicate that she was injured. She didn’t want teammates and trainers to suggest she take it down a notch.
I’ve had the privilege, or misfortune, of seeing Melanie fly into cringe-inducing, bone-crunching tackles on the soccer pitch, walking away from opponents whistling as they clutched various ankles and shins. Her fearlessness was inspiring — one of the main reasons I played most of my career on her team.
As a teammate, she’s motivating. As an opponent, she’s terrifying. What she lacked in height, she made up for in speed, strength and bravery. It didn’t always work out in her favour: a concussion from a boot to the head meant we had to compete in the National Championship gold medal game sans our best player.
This latest injury was no different. She kept it quiet and decided to take a year off to heal without the temptation of coming back too soon. And while she has the year off, why not use it to have her first child?
Nine months later, Mel welcomed a healthy baby boy. At 11 months post-partum, she noticed something was wrong. “I was weaning him, but my breast wasn’t getting smaller,” she said. “The more my breast tissue changed, the more I started to feel this lump on the side of my breast.”
Issues with her breasts were not new. She had a history of cysts. While she was hopeful that would be the diagnosis, somewhere in her gut she knew that it wouldn’t be. The lump was hard, it was fixed and it was growing.
“Everyday life trains you to turn off that intuition because you’d be second guessing every single thing you do,” she said. “The technology that we use trains us to be less intuitive. And, as women, we learn not to listen to our intuition because it pisses people off.”
She has had been to the doctor many times for cysts (every time she had a new one, she went) and was used to hearing, “you’re going to have cysts – relax!” This time she was hesitant to visit a doctor and place a burden on the health care system. She let the voice in her head tell her “it’s probably that,” until her intuition was yelling even louder “it’s not that!”
This time, the doctor knew right away that it was not “that.” It didn’t take long to get a mammogram. Then a biopsy. The results came in. As usual, her intuition was correct. Advocating for herself and her needs paid off.
“You have to realize that nobody is looking out for you, especially in the medical system,” she said. “And the doctor isn’t going to take care of your kid’s if you die. So, you really need to advocate for yourself.”
What friends are for
There she was, storming from the doctor’s office. She had a choice to make: keep this to herself as she had with countless injuries before, or reach out to her community for support.
“I left the doctor’s office because it was the last place I wanted to be,” she said. “I didn’t want to go home. I was, like, ‘what are we going to do with this information?’”
Instinctively, she went to the gym. She realized that whether she lived or died, she would need people. She couldn’t keep it a secret. “I needed support,” she said. “I didn’t know how to deal with this on my own.”
Pulling away from her community was not an option. She made her choice. She walked in the door and they just knew.
They cried and held her. The battle lines were drawn. Her team versus cancer. And did her troops rally! They came out in full force, cooking anti-inflammatory, gluten-free, dairy-free meals (some are still in her freezer). They helped out with her baby when they could. On the eve of her surgery, 55 of them came out to do one last workout with her.
The new normal
Fast-forward a year, another child and a second mastectomy. She is cancer free. But there are new challenges beyond the physical.
“I had serious survivor’s guilt because I was fortunate enough to have all the lymph nodes removed and didn’t need chemo,” she said. “So many younger people have to go through that. I voiced that to my doctor and she was, like, ‘you had an issue and you dealt with it. Don’t ever feel guilty for advocating for yourself the way you did.”
Plus, adapting to life as a woman without breasts has been no emotional walk in the park. “I feel like it’s something I shouldn’t complain about because, hey, I survived! But it has been tough. And I’ve had to have difficult conversations with my husband, like, are breasts a dealbreaker?”
Having her second breast removed was precautionary and not a decision she took lightly. She opted to wait to have the second procedure until she had carried and breastfed her second son.
Another thing: Mel is so funny. She had me in stitches as she regaled me with tales of pregnancy with one giant breast, not something that felt overly sexy. But when the surgeon had a window to do the operation, she jumped.
Besides the obvious physical symmetry and balance the surgery gave her (apparently having none is way better than having one), her lack of breasts forced to her to redefine what the words “femininity” and “sexuality” mean to her.
A few months ago, she went to a sauna with a friend. She went topless – it was a triggering experience because it forced her come face-to-face (so to speak) with breasts. “It made me think I don’t look the same, I might be embarrassed of my body, and maybe I do miss my breasts.”
Admittedly, the adaptation is still a work in progress. She’s slowly venturing from baggy to V-neck shirts and is embracing her life-long affinity for androgenous styling. She’s learning how to dress her new body and to find her sense of femininity in places other than her curves.
“I’m athletic and so the only curves in my body that really showed off my femininity were my breasts,” she said. “And they’re gone. I’m just coming to terms with how to embrace femininity without them. I’m allowing myself to mourn the loss of that body type.”
Sport imitates life
When you look at Melanie’s life from a distance, it seems as if she was preparing for something epic her entire life. Maybe, unknowingly, it was to fight this disease.
Before a big soccer game, there are a few key things that you really need to feel fully prepared. You need enough fitness to tackle extra time if it comes to that. You need a great touch on the ball that comes only with practice. You need a supportive team around you to instill confidence. And you need a desire to win — at any costs.
Fitness, skill, confidence, support and desire. Have all those and when it’s time for the big show – in life and in sport – you’ll be ready.
Cancer was the big show and she was.
More Inspiration: Check out this amazing story of a woman who pushed through alcohol and life challenges.