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Thursday, December 17,2009

One man's rocky journey chasing down a dream

By Ryan Casey

Monday came, and along with it, the results of the MRI. Mike was told, with certainty, that he had melanoma, and that he was “all lit up like a Christmas tree” with high activity in his chest, abs and neck. What doctors didn’t know with certainty, though, was if the melanoma had spread to his lymphatic system, requiring experimental drugs and things like biochemotherapy, or if Mike had lymphoma, which would have a more defined course of treatment. Because Mike’s case was so unusual, they planned on taking it to a tumor board, made up of a group of oncologists, pathologists and surgeons.

Full of questions, Mike couldn’t hold back. “So what are you telling me?” he asked. “Do I have days? Do I have years? Do I have months? Let’s get to the nittygritty. What do I got?” “Could be months, could be years,” was the response he got. “Just don’t know,depending on what it is.”

The Newtons’ only option was to sit and wait for the opinion of the tumor board. Mike, furious with feeling helpless, went back to his office at Flatirons Document Support, where he ran into his mother.

“I’m pissed,” he told her. “Good,” she said. “That’s what you need to be.”

“One way or another,” he vowed, “this thing’s getting out of my body.”

As the tumor board mulled his case over, neither Mike nor Leta heard a bit of news for a week and a half.

“Nothing,” Mike says. “Dead silence.

That was hard. And I was calling about every other day to see what was going on … calling the oncology and calling the surgeons — all that stuff — to say, ‘OK, what are we doing? What are we doing? What are we doing?’ Here you move me rapid speed and all of a sudden you stop me. We waited and waited and waited and waited.”

Life settled back to its former self over that span.

“You knew in the back of your mind it was still there, but it was like everything was normal,” Leta says. “So just waiting to know what our next step was was very difficult. You felt like life was the same, but it really wasn’t.”

Sleep didn’t come easy for Mike during that time.

“It was just crazy,” he says. “A few late nights. A few sleepless nights. Quite a few. Wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d go downstairs, turn on the TV, fall asleep. I had to get my mind on something else. My mind was just going. Then about an hour later, go back up and go to bed.” He laughs at the memory. “Or, at that point in time, I’d just stay up and go into work.”

The community that was baseball engulfed the family. Some would share survival stories, which was something Mike greatly appreciated. One player’s grandmother shared how she’d beaten melanoma, how they’d taken a piece of her arm. “Look at me!” she said, arm held high over a smile. “I’m still here.”

He’d turn around, then think, This is in my lymph nodes. They can’t take all those out. But Mike’s duties as an assistant coach at Silver Creek, and the sport of baseball as a whole, Leta says, “probably kept him sane.”

“There were days where he would be coming from work and he would call me and he would just be in tears, because he didn’t know if he was going to be gone and if our kids were going to have a father in a matter of months,” she adds. “So it was hard. He would call me in tears on the way to the baseball field, and the baseball field just allowed him to escape. He could be out there and just be one of the guys and joke around and escape it all.”

Finally, the phone rang. The tumor board had agreed that the best course of action was a surgery that went down Mike’s trachea, next to his heart, and removed four lymph nodes for testing. Lymph nodes, which act as a filter for the body’s lymphatic system, often “catch” cancerous cells and thus serve as a good measure as to whether the cancer has spread. There are about 600 lymph nodes in a human body.

Mike finally had a concrete plan as to what his team of doctors was going to do. His first surgery was May 20, and just before he was put under, his surgeon laid out exactly what was ahead. There were two very likely scenarios: the melanoma had spread to his lymphatic system, or it was another form of cancer, such as lymphoma.

There was also a third, “very, very small chance,” the surgeon added, “that it’s nothing.”

It was during this hour-and-a-half surgery that the massive, blackened lymph nodes were removed from Mike’s body. The consensus in the OR was the same: Not good.

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