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Melanoma puts man on mission to raise money, awareness
Neil Gaines, wearing a shirt supporting melanoma research, was diagnosed with level four melanoma a year ago. - photo by Tom Reed

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A life-altering experience one year ago put Neil Gaines on a mission.

Two days after his 23rd birthday, Gaines learned he had level four melanoma after a visit to a dermatologist to have an odd-shaped mole on his back examined.

"It was a big shock for me and my family, since it was my first time going to a dermatologist," said Gaines, who added that such an advanced stage of skin cancer is rare in a person his age. "It was just so unexpected, and it was hard to deal with because I didn’t know anything about melanoma."

Melanoma is not the most common of the skin cancers, but it is the most serious. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 8,000 people died from melanoma in 2007. Nearly 60,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year. Melanoma, while deadly, is considered highly treatable if caught early.

In Gaines’ case, doctors spent six hours in surgery removing 150 lymph nodes from under his arms and chest, all of which came back as testing negative for cancer. That was the good news. The bad news was there wasn’t much effective treatment for stage four melanoma beyond regular injections of interferon, a naturally occurring substance within the body that can be synthesized and used to stimulate the human immune system. Three times a week, Gaines gets a shot of interferon at home.

"Interferon is the only option for me, but it’s still not that good a treatment," said Gaines, who is often left fatigued by the injections. "It’s a yearlong process, but it only reduces the chance of reoccurrence by 10 percent."

Gaines decided he wanted to help find better treatments by raising money for the Melanoma Research Foundation to further clinical trials and research.

Gaines, a graduate of Gainesville High School and the University of Georgia, also wants to use his experience to increase awareness of skin cancer risks.

"I just want people to know that this kind of thing does happen," said Gaines, who said he spent an average amount of time out in the sun growing up as an active person, but always had a number of moles on his skin. "You need to be careful in being exposed to the sun, and make routine doctor appointments."

Gaines and his friends and family put their efforts into the inaugural "Mela-NOMO" (a play on a slang term for ‘no more’) last month, drawing about 200 people to an outdoor event in Cleveland on the Chattahoochee River, raising about $6,000 in a day.

In all, Gaines has raised some $20,000 for the Melanoma Research Foundation.

"The response was pretty overwhelming, how many people donated money and came out to the fundraiser. I’m just really overwhelmed with how much money we raised for the foundation."

Gaines hopes to make the fundraiser an annual event, and plans to continue his effort in melanoma research, regardless of how long he goes cancer-free.

Gaines said melanoma impacted his life so much that he will continue to try and find better treatments.

"I’m always going to be affected by it and do everything I can to help out," he said.

Gaines said his diagnosis made him realize, "life can be taken for granted sometimes.

"It makes you appreciate the friends and family that you have, the people around you. You appreciate every day and try to live life to the fullest."