Waders help angler draw attention to men's cancers
Craig Nemchik dresses a little differently than most patients for visits with his oncologist.
The 59-year-old from White Oak wears chest waders.
Although he turns a few heads at Hillman Cancer Center, Nemchik finds that fishing for trout -- not sympathy -- is good medicine for living with bone cancer. Waders are his talisman.
"Fishing is all about hope," says Nemchik, a lifelong angler who hasn't let surgery, radiation therapy, or his current course of treatment -- hormone-replacement injections---keep him off the water. He has stayed active for the past 20 years with ulcerative colitis, too.
In 2009, the year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had surgery, he caught 2,810 trout -- his best number since 1969 when he began to keep detailed fishing diaries. Besides 110 days at Dunlap Lake, Mill Creek and other local fisheries, Nemchik traveled to Erie 11 times to target steelhead.
Even six weeks of radiation therapy in 2010 to treat a recurrence of cancer failed to put much of a dent in his average. He fished 80 days and landed 2,330 trout that year.
There were times the radiation left Nemchik fatigued, but he fished a dozen times in 37 days of treatment. "I may not have walked as far or fished as long as I normally would," he says, "but what drove me was a pure love of being on the water."
Nemchik even took his passion for angling to the cancer center, acting on a suggestion by his nurse-health coach. "She asked me to visualize myself when I am feeling my best," Nemchik says. "For me that was easy: I'm fishing."
He had seen people in the clinic wearing pink caps for breast cancer and decided to don his own emblem of courage. "My health coach suggested I wear my fishing vest, but I thought it would be too smelly, so I bought a brand new pair of waders, just to wear to Hillman," says Nemchik, who donned waders for his final radiation session.
Last fall, he learned cancer had spread to his left hip bone.
"What did I do the day I was told the cancer was back• I drove to Indian Lake, and the next day, I went to Erie with my buddy Ed Kubik," Nemchik says. "We had a great day, a five-star day.
"I talked to Ed man to man about my cancer on the way up, and all we talked about on the way home was fishing. It took my mind off my illness."
Nemchik broke out his "Hillman waders" again last fall for the first in a series of hormone-replacement injections. "If I'd known where I was going to get the shot, though, I might have left the waders at home," says Nemchik, with a chuckle.
The injections are expected to keep him active for another five to eight years, he says. "And by that time, maybe doctors will come up with new options. You have to maintain hope."
His second injection isn't until May. In the meantime, he plans to do a lot of fishing, particularly on Loyalhanna Creek, where he and his wife, Cathy, have a cottage. Nemchik helped the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stock Deer Creek with trout on March 15, and he plans to spend opening day of trout season, April 15, on Turtle Creek. He hasn't missed an opening day in 46 years.
"Turtle Creek isn't the most beautiful stream. It's not like Jones Mill, in the mountains, but it's where a lot of my friends will be," Nemchik says. "And that's as important to me as the fishing."
Mark Feick of Greenock is one of those buddies. The two met at Indian Lake, when Feick asked for pointers about fishing. "Craig's a great fisherman," Feick says. "He got me off my bucket and taught me how to walk a stream to find trout. He's helped me with my skills."
Even more, Nemchik imparted life lessons, Feick says. "You'd think he'd be devastated by a cancer diagnosis. I'd be devastated. But his attitude has always been, 'I'm going to go out and fish until I can't fish anymore.'
"He hasn't let the cancer get him down. That's inspiring. I'm glad we're friends."
Hillman clinical social worker Kay Lowmaster considers Nemchik a role model at monthly Us TOO support group meetings for men with prostate cancer.
"Men are unlikely to be emotive or talk about living with prostate cancer, but Craig is open and that encourages other men to talk, which helps them feel less isolated," she says. "It also helps raise awareness. Prostate cancer is diagnosed as often as breast cancer, but doesn't get nearly as much attention."
Aside from non-melanoma skin cancer, it is the most common cancer among men in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. And, while it is one of the leading causes of cancer death among men, it is also one of the most curable if caught in the early stage, Lowmaster says. "That's why screening is so important."
Nemchik hopes that sharing his story will get more men to see their doctors, and that the one in six men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year will take heart from his story of survival. "If you don't have a passion, get one," he says. "Live each day to the fullest."
"Cancer isn't easy. Craig is brave," Lowmaster says. "And I think wearing the waders -- aside from doing what feels good -- shows a sense of humor, which is a very healthy coping skill."
Us TOO meets at the Hillman Cancer Center in Oakland the third Wednesday of every month from 6 pm to 8:30 pm. Admission is free and open to prostate-cancer survivors and their loved ones.