Stories of Hope
It Won't Go Away So Don't Ignore It
Article date: September 13, 2002
"All the signs were there, I just had not known what to look for."
Just two years ago, Mike Trafton, then 37 and a husband and father of three, had a brush with melanoma. This year, Trafton is a survivor. He will be one of the 3,000 cancer survivors traveling to Washington, DC, for the Relay For Life Celebration on the Hill Sept. 19.
"As we get closer to the big event in Washington, I'm even more excited," said Trafton, who's never been to the Capitol City before. "I think it's going to be an incredible two or three days." A native "Mainer," Trafton said when he was growing up, getting the first sunburn of the summer was an annual rite. "Being in Maine, we always thought, skin cancer: Florida, California, Australia, but just not Maine," he said. "I think people take for granted that especially in the north, it's not something that we get. We do." He said a doctor told him skin cancer was almost epidemic in the Bangor area for people his age. "I don't think any of us ever used sun block," Trafton said. "We'd go out, get the first sunburn, everybody would be sore. We'd laugh it off, slap each other, you know, do those stupid kid things, and just think, yeah, it hurts. But we go through this every year for a few days, and then it peels and starts to tan, and then after that we were all set," he said.
A Summer Tradition's Dark Side
"But, that's not the way it works," he said. "I learned the hard way." For the past 17 years, Trafton has taught eighth grade social studies in Corinth, about 20 miles northwest of Bangor. In November 1999, he had a mole removed from his chest. "I had always wondered about it; it always looked different and I just tried to ignore it," Trafton said. He was at school, eating lunch one day, when he was paged — his doctor was calling, and he'd never called Trafton at work before. It was about the mole. "We talked for maybe 10 minutes and I don’t even remember anything about the conversation," he said, except for the part about melanoma. "My first reaction was, am I gonna make 40?" He said he thought of his children, then ages seven, nine, and 14. "They're all girls, and so my thoughts went to that. It was pretty scary when I got that word. That's for sure." During the next class period, he was free so he went online and started his research. "I really didn't know a lot about it," he said. He found information on staging on the ACS site, he said. "It talked about the depth of invasion, and that if it was over 4 mm deep (about one-fifth inch), there's a one in five chance of surviving five years." "It seemed like when it was removed it was more than 4 mm," he said. "But it was above the skin also, so that was why it seemed so much bigger."
About A Mole
He said he also discovered the ABCD rule — four things to watch for that may mean the difference in a mole and a melanoma. "All the signs were there," he said, "I just had not known what to look for." The mole he'd had removed had all of the characteristics, and even bled from time to time. When he got home from school that afternoon, Trafton told his wife. "We talked about it, stayed up all night," he said. "My kids really didn’t know what was going on until after the second surgery." He said he didn't tell his kids until he got the call from his doctor's office that said there were no signs that it had spread. "And that's when I told them that it had been originally diagnosed as a cancer," he recounted. Trafton said if he'd had the mole removed years ago, he probably wouldn’t have had to have the second surgery. "But, hindsight's 20/20," he said. The second surgery took place Jan. 4 in Bangor. He had "what they call a wide excision," he said. A piece of skin 4 cm (about one and one-half inch) in diameter was taken out of his chest. "Just skin, but they have to go deep, and then they did the sentinel node biopsy. And then it all had to be sent to Boston." Sentinel lymph node biopsy is a technique used to check to see if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. "I couldn’t help but think if Bangor had a lab to conduct the tests, things would go much faster," he said. When he woke after the surgery, his wife and three daughters were with him. His wife had good news — a preliminary test that had been done after the operation showed no sign the cancer had spread. "It didn't necessarily say that there wasn’t any cancer, but if it had come back positive, then they would know it had spread," Trafton said. "I didn’t hear back till Jan. 12," he said. "That was a very long eight days. Well, the first day wasn’t very long, I slept through most of that, but after that it was a pretty tough week." Trafton was back at work the next Tuesday. "I didn't want to just sit around and wait for the phone to ring," he said. That Friday afternoon his doctor called and said everything looked good. His doctor wanted him to get a second opinion, and the second doctor, a cancer specialist, agreed — no further treatment.
The Sun Is My Enemy
"He said the key was to watch for other signs," Trafton said. For the first year after the surgery, he went back to the doctor every three months. Now he does every six. "The sun is my enemy now," he said, laughing. He also said he and his wife are very careful with their daughters' sun exposure — "probably a lot more careful than we were two years ago." Looking back, Trafton said he feels fortunate. Melanoma is a scary word, he said. "You just need to keep in mind that if they get it …before it spreads, the survival rate is around 90%. The key is to get it as soon as possible. If there's a spot that you ever have a concern about, get it looked at," Trafton said.