Noel Clarke will turn 50 years old in 50 days, but he’s not counting on a calendar because, frankly, he does not know how many days remain.
He has served as the chief of the Moundsville Fire Department for the past 15 years, and Clarke continues in that position today despite his health issues over the last three years. His diagnosis, however, was not expected because the lifelong Marshall County resident merely requested a colonoscopy because of a family history with cancer.
“It was really weird how it was found because all I did in the beginning was go to the doctor because of pain in my left shoulder from an ATV accident,” Clarke explained. “When the appointment was over and the doctor was in the middle of scheduling my physical therapy, I just blurted out that I wanted a colonoscopy. He turned around and looked at me and said, ‘What’d you say?’ And I repeated it.
“He asked if I was symptomatic, if I was experiencing some issues that would lead me to believe something was wrong, and I told him I wasn’t, but that I just wanted to have it done,” he said. “And then in a few weeks I got a phone call about the appointment, and I went to have the test.”
Most people dread a colonoscopy test not only because of the nature of the procedure but also because of the preparation process they must endure during the 24 hours prior to the appointment. Clarke, an ever-positive person, did what he was instructed to do and did not mind the appointment until the very end.
“To be honest, when I had the colonoscopy, it actually was a nice little nap,” he said with a chuckle. “As I was walking out of the hospital and a nurse asked me where I was going, I told her I was going home and that I had the ride they told me to have for after the test. Well, then the nurse tells me that the doctor wanted to speak to me before I left, and I just thought he was going to make sure I was OK after the test.
“He sat me down in the exam room, and the first thing he said to me was, “You’re a mess.’ He explained they didn’t even need to test the tumor they found. The doctor told me that I definitely had cancer,” he continued. “That tumor was pretty big, and it’s one of those moments in your life when life gets real. That’s what happens when someone says the ‘C word’ to you. All I could do then is schedule the surgery and then plan for treatment following it.”
Bag of Marbles
On the day following his 50th birthday, July 31, Clarke will celebrate his 20th anniversary with the city of Moundsville, and prior to accepting the position with the municipality, he volunteered for several fire departments throughout Marshall County for a little more than a decade. Fighting fires has always in his blood, he insisted, and he enjoys serving the people who are his neighbors and his friends and family.
So, this is not the first time when Clarke has faced a life-or-death circumstance, but it’s definitely different because now it’s his life in the balance.
“And I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping ever since. I’ve received a lot of support, but there are still a lot of sleepless nights,” he reported. “Sleep is something that’s not really been possible because my mind has been racing ever since that colonoscopy appointment. If there’s someone out there experiencing what I am, my advice is to stay as active as they can. It helps. It’s helped me.
“It’s all about doing as much as you can while you can,” he continued. “That’s been my mindset ever since it sunk in that I had cancer, and it’s been that way after each one of those appointments. I’m just trying to take it all in while I can.”
Prior to his initial surgical procedure to remove the malignant tumor, he had a consultation with his surgeon, Dr. K. Steven Wiley. During that appointment Clarke had the chance to see something he’s never witnessed before.
“That’s because he allowed me to see the tumor, and it was ugly. First thing he said was, ‘That sure doesn’t belong there,’ and he was puzzled as to why I wasn’t symptomatic because of its size,” the firefighter explained. “I asked him, because of the size of it, how long he thought it might have been there, and he said it could have been there for years.
“That’s why I am preaching about screenings because colon cancer grows slowly in the beginning, and it can be erased if caught early enough,” he insisted. “So, who knows what may have happened if I would have had the colonoscopy earlier in my life? They say 50 years old is when you should start having them, but I was in my mid 40s and already had the tumor.”
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Following his recovery from the surgery that removed 14 inches of his colon, Clarke believed his battle had been won.
It was not.
“The doctor said he was pretty confident that it was encapsulated, so I thought it would be snipped, and I’m done with cancer,” he said. “But it didn’t work out that way. It had got into the lymph nodes. I thought I was going to be good, but then I had to address it again.
“I’ve had three surgeries so far, and now this is the fourth time that the cancer has returned,” Clarke explained. “It has seemed like it’s been every six months. Then they found another spot on my liver even after I have had a liver resection, and they wanted to watch it for 90 days to see what would happen. When I just went back on May 31, it looked like someone had shot a bag of marbles into my liver. It was the most defining moment in my life. It really got real.”
“Slamming the Juice”
Jumping out of a perfectly operational airplane.
Riding his ATV, sitting around a campfire with his friends, and fishing along Fish Creek.
Taking a helicopter ride.
And eating at as many local restaurants as possible.
Those are the activities in which Noel Clarke wishes to participate.
While he can.
“The doctor has told me that I am incurable. Her words were, ‘I cannot cure you.’ She said we can work on management, but that there was too much there now. She did not say ‘terminal,’ but I still asked her if it was time for me to make a bucket list,” he said. “She did say that she has had patients that have managed it for a while, but she also said that sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“So, now I have to see what happens as I begin a new round of management treatments. That’s all I can do, really,” Clarke said. “I have to make the best of it at this point. I have to get the word out; I know that. It’s day-to-day, and I am going to live each of those days; I’ll tell you that.”
He will again begin “slamming the juice” next week when his chemotherapy treatments begin, and Clarke refers to the nurses at Wheeling Hospital’s Schiffler Cancer Center as, “his angels.” Although he’s not experienced a loss of appetite or exhaustion during his previous rounds of chemo, this fire chief doesn’t know what to expect this time.
“What I have been living through for the past three years has been horrible, and I don’t want others to experience this because it’s stopped everything in my life, and it’s something I want others to avoid. That’s why I have no problem now telling my story and telling them that I am incurable because I am trying to help the people in this area,” Clarke insisted. “I’m sharing my health issues because I want them to understand that this is real. This is not about something you see on TV when a doctor comes into a room and announces a miracle. I just want people to know they need to be aware of this.
“It’s not about me anymore. Instead, it’s about people getting checked and getting the care that they need,” he explained. “They have to take that step. They have to get tested, and then they need to do what they need to do to keep living. That’s why I am still fighting it every single day, and I will not give up.”
Clarke is spreading his message in every possible way he can think of, and he spent an hour this week on the Watchdog Network AM 1600 WKKX and AM 1370 WVLY doing so. He also spends time on Facebook so he can provide poignant posts he believes my drive another to make the call and keep the screening appointment.
His family and friends have planned a steak fry to benefit him, and it is set for June 24 inside the Chesapeake Building at the Marshall County Fairgrounds. The doors open at 5 p.m., and it’s a $25 donation for each person to attend, eat, enjoy a few beverages, and dance to the live entertainment.
“At this point, as far as what I’m going through, I plan to live as long as I am allowed to live, and now I’m just trying to get the word out there so people can go get checked,” Clarke said. “We also should support other people who are going through the treatments already because, trust me, you don’t want any part of what I’m experiencing. It’s just not about having cancer and going to get chemo because it changes your entire life.
“My life is upside-down, and it’s a struggle that I battle every day, but I try hard to be as normal as possible,” this brave man added. “I’m still me, but it never leaves my mind. Never. I don’t feel too bad, but I have cancer, and that’s something I’ve had to admit. And there, I just did again.”
(Photos provided by Moundsville Fire Chief Noel Clarke)