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Thursday, December 17,2009

One man's rocky journey chasing down a dream

By Ryan Casey

He removes his cap; fingers brush past his left ear and instinctively find the scar at the base of his skull. It’s much smaller now, about the size of a half-dollar coin, and much more manageable. There are other scars: two incisions along the base of his neck, and one right below his larynx — “almost like a tracheotomy,” he shrugs. The latter serves as a reminder of the day surgeons removed samples of his lymph nodes from his chest, found them to be massively swollen and black as coal, and concluded that Mike Newton’s cancer had spread.

His eyes study the nets, artificial turf and pitching machines that serve as the final product of an 18-year dream nearly derailed by that day. Newton’s baby, the 12,000-square-foot baseball and softball training facility Extra Innings, will allow the area’s talent to train year-round — even on days like this day, when two inches of snow blanket the empty parking lot outside. It’s a facility that Newton’s wife, Leta, says is bringing him back to his roots after years of running a Boulder-based legal document support company. It’s here that Newton has removed his cap and is showing a visitor his scar.

“I thought it was an ingrown hair,” he says. “Seriously. I thought it was an ingrown hair.”

Earlier this year while on a spring break vacation, Newton noticed a cyst-like blemish on the back of his head, along his hat line. Ingrown hairs were nothing new: Newton often shaves his head, and, being an assistant on Longmont’s Silver Creek High School’s varsity team, is always in a ballcap — almost the perfect recipe. But he returned from the trip to questions from a few Silver Creek players about the cyst, which had grown. Did you hit your head? they asked.

Newton, 42, shrugged it off. He’d already been diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a non-lethal form of skin cancer, and was due for an appointment at his dermatologist. So Newton went in for his check-up, had it removed. His doctor didn’t think much of it, either, but sent it along to be tested.

The following Wednesday, April 8, was a late-start day in the St. Vrain Valley School District. While he was at home that morning with his three kids — Capper, 13; Ashley, 11; and Jan, 5 — the phone rang. It was Newton’s dermatologist, who had an urgent tone. The test results came back as melanoma.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Newton gazed at his kids.

“They could kind of hear the change in my voice,” he says.

Still, not knowing what this news meant — the most dangerous type of skin cancer, melanoma is often fatal if not caught early — he assured them it was a client from work. Newton made another appointment, and soon was meeting with an oncologist from Rocky Mountain Cancer Center.

“He went through my reports. I went through some scans,” Newton says, “and he said, ‘Everything’s looking good right now. It looks like it’s going to be a simple procedure.’” Newton laughs. “As far as that goes.”

Newton was set for a sentinel lymph node biopsy, which would determine how far the melanoma had spread. Before he left the appointment, there was a final procedure to go through: a PET scan, which measures function of the body’s organs and tissues. It can also be used to detect changes in the body at the cellular level to determine the progression of a disease, such as melanoma.

The next day, Newton met his surgeon for the biopsy.

“Everything was flying fast,” Newton says. “I went from Wednesday, meeting with my dermatologist, to meeting with the oncologist by Thursday, and then meeting with the surgeon on Friday. I was in-and-out. Fast. And so I’m meeting with [workers] on the build out [for Extra Innings], I’m still working my other job at [Flatirons Document Support], and then still helping coach at the same time — which was good. Great distraction.”

That Friday morning — two days after his world was turned upside down — Newton was having his pre-surgery appointment, where a nurse was taking him through a series of questions. He’d switched off his phone while there, so when he went to turn it on, he was greeted by a series of voicemails. As Newton went to check them, Leta called. Mike’s oncologist was leaving town for the weekend, but needed to speak with him right away. He was concerned with the results of the PET scan.

Sitting in the hospital’s lobby, Newton called his oncologist. The scan had showed high activity in his chest, neck and abdomen. The biopsy scheduled for the following Monday was canceled. “Everything we’re going to do is now changed,” he was told. Newton was scheduled for an MRI that night, the results of which would be discussed at an appointment the following Monday. The thought doctors left Newton with for the weekend was that the cancer may have invaded his lymphatic system, which is the foundation of the human body’s immune system.

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