For Steve Melen and his wife, Jen, their relationship “was all covered in a blanket of positivity, of striving for the future.” They had successful careers, a nice house and a newborn daughter they both adored. But Steve’s persistent stomach pain and subsequent Stage IIIB stomach cancer diagnosis ripped that blanket off, leaving them both exposed and facing the cruel 15 percent survival rate, which meant the odds were stacked against any future Steve had envisioned for himself.
His memoir, Killer Graces (Joint Venture), is more than just another cancer story. Although Melen’s tale does begin with his cancer diagnosis, his battle through various treatments is only the tip of the iceberg. In the wake of major surgery — which would leave him without his stomach, along with a few other internal organs — and chemotherapy and radiation, Melen faces addiction to painkillers, followed by alcohol abuse and a crumbling marriage. Navigating these challenges will require Melen to both admit weakness and muster strength in order to break through.
A FATHER’S UNWAVERING LOVE FOR HIS DAUGHTER
From the start of Melen’s memoir, one thing is perfectly clear: he loves his daughter, Mia, more than anything in the world. An infant when he received his diagnosis, Mia is one of the few bright spots during his recovery. Despite the extreme toll chemo and radiation had taken on his body, he pushes his physical limits in playtime with Mia, knowing he’ll pay for it later, but deeming her smile and laughter worth all the pain and exhaustion.
Later, through his struggle with addiction, it is young Mia’s keen observation about her own father’s absence that stops Melen in his tracks and has him considering for the first time that his own actions were preventing him from raising his daughter — not those of his wife. He desperately wants to be the father she deserves, and while that desire may be his guiding light through rehabilitation, Melen realizes he’ll have to let go of every excuse he has stashed in his back pocket and confront his shortcomings — a difficult task he won’t be willing to take on in earnest until his second stint in rehab.
And that stash of excuses had been pretty convincing — to some of his peers, but mostly to Melen himself. He had the big-C for crying out loud! But he “was an addict — full stop.” It didn’t matter what he’d been through, “everyone had their story.” He wasn’t special and his situation wasn’t different. Nothing he’d experienced — not the cancer, not the surgery, not the people he’d lost, not his anxiety or pain — gave him a free pass.
FROM “FOR THE FUTURE” TO “IN THE MOMENT”
Killer Graces follows a man to the edge of death and self-destruction, then witnesses him turn on his heel and march headfirst into sobriety. From beating the odds and surviving cancer to looking his demons in the eye and refusing to blink, Melen’s story is one of hope.
Before his diagnosis, Melen was “living only for the future,” but in learning that life had more to offer than just tomorrow, he also learned — perhaps the hard way — that “there’s a right way and a wrong way to live in the moment.” Now, having survived everything, Melen says it’s the “little things” that get him out of bed in the morning. And as for his book, if even one person draws inspiration from Melen’s experiences to persevere through whatever hand life has dealt them, then mission accomplished.
Killer Graces is available for purchase.