This paper publishes many stories of the struggles caused by death of a loved one, made harder close to a holiday. This week, the Times Leader copes with a loss of its own, as reporter Melanie Mizenko passed away after a valiant, upbeat struggle against cancer. It’s a blow to her family and ours, and to the community she brightened.
An Ashley native, Melanie joined the newsroom in January 2014, part time, instantly earning admiration for her work ethic and winning friends with her irrepressibly sunny personality. But it was her response to the diagnosis of endometrial cancer late in 2014 that will always remain her signature gift to those who knew her.
Melanie grappled with cancer with an honest optimism she shared by osmosis. If she was nearby, you were affected for the better. She also shared it in words through nearly two-dozen “Beyond the Byline” columns, lessons on how to live.
She wrote of binge watching during recovery from surgery (David Caruso was a favorite), of royal watching, of local family traditions, of being true to yourself in the age of social media, of coping with car problems on a weekend road trip, of Thanksgiving Day gratitude, family gatherings, train whistles and lost companions, friendship — and the struggle to be a good friend when cancer knocks you down.
Yes, mortality peppered the columns, as it had to. She encountered local talk radio personality L.A. Tarone at Fox Chase Cancer Center — where they both sought treatment — shortly before he died. She did a “Polar Plunge” commemorating a woman she never met, who had died of colon cancer at the age of 23 in 2009. She recounted her own diagnosis just months after dad had gotten his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and later wrote of the memories she kept of her hockey-loving father after he passed on.
Melanie spoke of her cancer in universal terms. The difficulty of staying positive, of waiting to know if treatment is working. She bluntly called the disease “unfair”, but wasn’t talking about injustice to herself.
“This time should be used to celebrate my sister’s graduation from college, but instead we’re focusing on me, with cancer rearing its ugly head. … And while life has dealt me a rough hand, what is really and truly unfair is that my sister and my mother have been dealt just as bad of a hand, just as bystanders to the situation.”
She asked “Why aren’t there more people like me on TV? ,” but as always, it wasn’t really about her, it was about the mis-characterization of cancer in movies and on TV.
”Cancer is not always a death sentence, as Hollywood (and most people) would believe. The majority of cancer patients walk around everyday and go about daily living.”
She offered what most would consider an oxymoron: five reasons she appreciated cancer. No gimmicks, just an honest accounting of changed priorities.
“There are many things to fear, and cancer, I’ve learned, isn’t one of them. The disease kept me from having a life focused around the negatives when I should be looking at the positives. It has given me hope and has made me realize how fragile life really can be.”
When she first revealed her cancer had returned, she put the fight in simple terms: “Attitude is 75 percent of the battle.”
Losing her at age 26 is a tragedy, but Melanie Mizenko gave us more in the last two years than some provide in a lifetime.