From his tongue, a cancerous chunk was carved out. (Doctors rebuilt his tongue with a piece of his left forearm. A slice from his left leg was then grafted onto his arm.)
From an ear-to-ear incision, surgeons plucked one saliva gland and hundreds of lymph nodes.
From his once-powerful frame, 60 pounds fell.
But Cliff Cunningham, more upbeat than beat up, is here.
And it is remarkable.
Listen to Rick Fraser rave.
“The biggest story at the Calgary Stampede – and people don’t even realize this – is the guy in the orange wagon,” says Fraser, a fellow driver with the World Professional Chuckwagon Association. “Nobody’s even giving him any ink. He’s a cancer survivor. He couldn’t even drive last year. He’s fought it. He’s beat it. He’s back.
“It’s the biggest story of the Stampede. The biggest story on our circuit this year, in my opinion.”
Cunningham’s wife Wendy owns a different perspective, having nursed her loved one through the terrifying stretch.
From routine checkup to cancer detection. From emergency tracheotomy to invasive surgery. From speaking valve to feeding tube.
From recovery to clean bill of health.
“It was a difficult time,” says Wendy. “From where we were at this time last year to where he is now, this is really something. Your whole life is turned around. You don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you. You go from a normal life to (thinking), ‘Is he going to live?’ That’s really what it was like. We didn’t know.
“So, to be here? Pretty awesome.”
The other night after his run as one of the demonstration drivers at the GMC Rangeland Derby, Cunningham shrugs when told of Fraser’s comments.
He remains humbled by the experience.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re tough. You’ll make it through,’ ” says Cunningham, sitting in a golf cart near his barn. “Believe me, I didn’t think I was tough – and I knew I wasn’t tough after going through that.”
(This from a gentleman, who once, in a grisly pony-wagon wreck, had the scalp nearly torn from his head. Thinking it was his hat slipping off, he kept trying to push the hanging flap of skin back in place.)
Missing the entire 2016 season gave Cunningham an opportunity to recalibrate his priorities.
Racing success is not No. 1 anymore. No surprise there.
“Winning is important, but, man oh man, it’s not everything,” says Cunningham. “We all have our bad days and our good days, but we found out if you don’t have your health, you don’t have nothing. You don’t really know that until you go through some bad, bad health problems.”
He understands that fully now.
Surgery – May 2016 at the University of Alberta Hospital – had been scheduled for 16 hours. It took 17. His stay was supposed to be 10 days. That turned into a month.
“It didn’t go really well.”
Not helping matters? Two days after the operation, their home, near Devon, Alta., flooded. Meaning the couple, with Cunningham in his weakened state, was forced to live in their camper for seven months.
“It was an uphill battle,” says Wendy. “It seemed like we couldn’t get ahead.”
Adds Cunningham, chuckling: “Yeah, 2016 was not a good year for us.”
One meaningful moment, in particular, stands out.
Glum, he’d decided to go for a walk around the hospital corridors.
“I had all these tubes coming out of me and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself,” he says. “There was this little guy. Seven or eight years old, pale as a ghost, no hair – he obviously had cancer. He was walking towards me and he looked at me with a great big smile.”
Cunningham grins and shakes his head.
“Here I am, 60-some years old and I’ve lived a fairly good life,” he continues. “And I see this little guy – hopefully, he made it – and he’s walking along with a smile on this face and I’m walking along with a pouty face.
“It put things in perspective – that it wasn’t that bad.”
Only months later, during the summer’s season, he convinced Wendy that they should go to High River to check in on Jess Willard, who had taken the reins of Cunningham’s rig. There, other drivers got a good gander at their old pal, looking as sick as he felt, lugging around a feeding tube.
“A lot of them didn’t think I’d be back driving,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I’d be driving, either. I just wanted to get my health back.”
Cunningham started to feel fitter this past winter.
By spring, he decided he was ready to resume, so they travelled to Grande Prairie, Alta., for the WPCA season-opener.
“As soon as I got on the seat and we unsnapped ’em, I felt good,” says Cunningham. “But when I pulled into the barrels (before the race), I glanced sideways a bit. I seen a few guys sitting on the fence, seeing how I was going to do.”
And what do you know? That night, he won the sixth heat, nosing out veteran pilots Mike Vigen, Doug Irvine, and Fraser.
Through the Ponoka Stampede – the WPCA stop prior to the GMC Rangeland Derby – Cunningham is ranked 24th, sandwiched between Kelly Sutherland and Troy Dorchester.
“Everything we love is this,” says Wendy, gesturing at the barns, busy as beehives. “This is what we do. This is what made him stronger.”
Helping matters greatly had been early detection.
Cunningham points out that Dave Semenko, former tough-guy of the Edmonton Oilers, reportedly hadn’t seen a doctor for 15 years before recently – and quickly – succumbing to cancer.
“People should do their checkups,” he says. “As of right now, they say I’m cancer-free.”
Next year – his final summer because of age restrictions – Cunningham intends to spread his hard-earned gospel by founding a cancer-awareness program.
“Maybe bring out (to the races) patients that are able to come,” he says. “That might be my grand finale – starting something like that.”