The mentor: Survivor Wanda Melin brings energy, optimism to Snoqualmie Valley Relay for Life

Wanda Melin has endured many losses to cancer, but  keeps busy with the Relay for Life and sewing projects like this baby quilt.  - Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Wanda Melin has endured many losses to cancer, but keeps busy with the Relay for Life and sewing projects like this baby quilt.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

She has the energy of someone passionate about a cause, and the practicality that often comes with age, but Wanda Melin (pronounced meh-leen) is first and foremost, a survivor.

A 50-year resident of Snoqualmie, and the 42nd member of her family to develop cancer, Melin grew up on the other side of the state, where her mother was born.

“We’re what you call a downwind family,” Melin said, explaining that much of her family was born near the Hanford nuclear site in eastern Washington, which her grandfather, Jess Edward Huntley, helped to build. Her mother was one of nine children, and one of the seven who eventually died from the effects of cancer or emphysema.

Melin’s eyes are bright with tears as she recounts her family history. Her father died in a car crash when she was 10 years old, “Yeah, 10!” she said. A year later, her mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, at age 30. She survived, but 13 years later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She survived that, too. At age 59, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought it for nearly a year before succumbing, on Christmas Eve, 1986.

She then lists the aunts, uncles and cousins on her mother’s side who have developed cancer over the years. Among those who didn’t survive are two of her sisters and a granddaughter, Nina, who never lived near Hanford.

“It comes down through the genes, that’s all we can think of,” Melin explained. “It was the first time on my granddaughter’s side of the family that anybody had been sick with cancer.”

On Melin’s side, cancer was prevalent. She had been tracking her family’s cases of cancer since her cousin, Chet Huntley of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, developed lung cancer, and died in 1974. It wasn’t until Nina’s illness, though, that she realized it was because they were downwinders.

Visiting Nina in the hospital, she recalled finding out that one of her cousin’s teenage sons also had a rare blood cancer.

“The doctor’s eyes got real big,” she recalled, “and she said ‘Oh! They both have the same thing!’”

Nina died at age 19, on Aug. 3, 2002.

By December of that year, Melin, a professional cook in the area for decades, had signed up to help at the local Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Naturally, she helped with the food, but she got her husband, David, and many of their six children involved with the event, too, from lifting and hauling supplies, to doing the bookkeeping and various auxiliary fundraisers for the event.

In 2007, however, a series of events forced Melin to step back, and begin mentoring her great-niece to take her place. She developed lung problems, and had a knee replacement surgery. David had heart surgery, and, in October, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“We only knew it a week before he died,” Melin said.

David died Oct. 16, 2007. They had been married 49 and a half years.

Melin’s own bout with cancer came two years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within a few months’ time, two sisters and a cousin had also gotten that diagnosis. Again, Melin made some easy decisions. She didn’t want to go through the radiation that had caused so much of her mother’s suffering, so she had a double mastectomy. And she didn’t want to leave her family.

“When I was diagnosed, I was scared half to death, and I thought ‘this is my time,’” she said. But then she thought of something else. “I have 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, and I have to be here for them.”

Her thoughts are on the next generation when she talks about the “Cancer Relay,” too. This year, she spoke for the first time at a survivor’s dinner.

Everybody should come to this year’s Relay for Life on July 7 and donate as much as they can, she says, because it is helping. Several years ago, Melin said she went to a regional event for the American Cancer Society, “and a man spoke… he said they had found a cure for cervical cancer for teenagers, to take those shots. And I thought ‘our money’s doing something good!’ … maybe they’ll find a way to heal breast cancer.”

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