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‘Every step was painful’: Ex-RJ columnist relates cancer battle

Updated May 20, 2024 - 12:11 pm

The moment Norm Clarke was told he had prostate cancer, his first thought was, “This is a death sentence.”

His next was, “I have maybe a year to live.”

Norm said that last week. His prognosis was 23 years ago.

The architect of the RJ’s daily 3A celeb column for 17 years is chronicling his two-decade battle with cancer at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Hard Rock Cafe on the Strip. The 82-year-old Vegas icon is sitting with ESPN’s Sean Farnham as part of former UNLV men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger’s 17th annual Coaches vs. Cancer event.

The session is open to the public, as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer “Bigger Monday Party” event (tickets are $250 for the evening; go to cvclasvegasgolfclassic.org and scroll to “Party Tickets” for intel and to book).

Norm learned of his cancer diagnosis in 2001, two years after he arrived in Las Vegas from Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. Norm hit Vegas after a long stint as a sports scribe and later man-about-town columnist, in his home state of Montana, Cincinnati, San Diego, L.A., and Denver.

Norm underwent prostate surgery in April of that year. Radiation treatments rendered covering his beat, or even walking across a room, a tortuous experience.

Listening to Norm recount his plight is painful. That he was able to sustain such a physically demanding daily column, nothing short of remarkable.

“I remember for years that I couldn’t walk without pain. Every step was painful,” Norm recalled. “I was under so much stress that my hair turned white.”

The radiation burned out Norm’s bladder, rendering it useless. He was in a wheelchair for the first year of treatment.

But dealing with pain was not new to Norm, who was once a defensive tackle on his 8-man football team at Terry (Mont.) High School. He lined up over center and battled waves of linemen.

“You can’t play football without playing with pain, and you can’t live with cancer without playing with pain,” Norm said. “I think that being an athlete, being a football player, and dealing with pain is one of the things that has led me to to fight as hard as I can.”

Norm remembers, simply, “I was in bad shape” when he took a call from the late Frank Lieberman, Siegfried & Roy’s publicist at the time. Lieberman was a friend to many Vegas journalists, and was once part of Elvis’ inner circle. The PR vet suggested Norm see the late Dr. Stephen Miller, who in turn referred Norm to Dr. Edwin Kingsley of Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Las Vegas.

Norm has a history of cancer in his family. His father died of the disease. The fear of cancer is also why the columnist lost his right eye has a child. At age 5, Norm had been involved in some small-town Montana horseplay when a suspender snapped loose and struck him in the eye. He wailed in pain, but there were no immediate ill effects.

But six years later, that eye had turned purple-red. The family doctor, concerned of the family’s history of cancer, told Norm’s mother, “This eye will need to come out, immediately.” After using an ill-fitting prosthetic into adulthood, Norm opted for his famous black eye patch, looking like a Las Vegas Raider, for the rest of his career.

Asked what form of treatment he has received, Norm said swiftly, “Chemo. Chemo once a week. Ass-kicking chemo.” Twice the cancer has resurfaced. He has become an expert on PSA numbers, with the treatment knocking those numbers to zero, only to spike back to 30. He’s at about 2 today, saying, “They just keep coming up with they keep coming up with things to keep me alive.”

Norm is now on his second clinical trial for his Stage 4 prostate cancer. He allows he’s feeling weaker, not as steady as even a month ago. But he gives credit to Dr. Kingsley for giving him and his wife, Cara Clarke, 20 years the couple would not have enjoyed otherwise. Norm and Cara vacationed in Hawaii for a week in April.

The writer speaks of his Montana roots, saying he was too tough to shed a tear even after his eye surgery, and has been stoic through his long treatment, “I grew up in a real cowboy community, where cowboys don’t cry, where cowboys are tough.”

But even this original Montanan lets the tears flow, as he anticipates sharing his story publicly.

“It’s been tough to talk about. I am so overcome with emotion over this event,” Norm said, his voice wavering. “I never expected to ever be on stage, just for fighting cancer. But it means a lot, because I have been through a lot.”

Night on Broadway

Broadway in the Hood’s lead fundraiser of the year, “From Broadway With Love, One Vision, One Voice, One Legacy,” is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall.

The program features Clint Holmes, Earl Turner, Travis Cloer, Bubba Knight, Genevieve Dew, Skye Dee Miles Antonio Fargas, Justin Bryant and the Broadway in the Hood Professional Dance Ensemble, the Las Vegas Mass Choir, and student performers from Mojave and Cimarron Memorial high schools.

Broadway in the Hood founder Torrey Russell says the goal is to raise $300,000, “So one day we can have our own Reynolds Hall.” Go to Broadwayinthehood.com for intel, and to support.

Cool Hang Alert

The woman who portrays the daffy-dangerous Phyllis Vanillis in Tape Face’s show at MGM Grand is headlining Maxan Jazz from 7-10 p.m. Thursday. Christina Balonek’s “Guys & Doll Quartet + 1 Because I Can’t Count” comedy-music revue features Kenny Davidsen on piano, Dennis Blair on bass, Brandon Turchiano on trombone, Joe Calitri on drums and special guest singer Eddie Love. Balonek is a wonderful comic performer and singer, and the band kills. Or even maims. Go to maxanjazz.com for intel.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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