Coolibar wraps up our official Melanoma Survivor Series with Tim Fater, a Rhode Island native whose sense of adventure has never wavered (we suspect it’s actually gotten stronger) following his diagnosis and treatment. Melanoma Month is almost over, but we’ll share additional stories throughout the year. Tell us yours!
Tim Fater noticed the first sign of melanoma in December of 2003. It wasn’t ominous; just an unusual freckle on his right forearm. Tim was 19 then, a junior at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He was also preparing for a semester abroad in Australia.
His mother, a nurse, urged him to get the freckle checked out before the trip. A biopsy was performed and a follow-up phone call told him the results were benign.
“I went to Australia,” Tim says now, “and burned for six months.”
The Adventure Begins
Following his graduation in 2005, Tim took off on another adventure. “I was doing the classic backpack trip across Europe,” he says. “While sitting on the train, I noticed the hints of a subtle re-growth emerging from the scar on my forearm where that initial excision had taken place. When I got back to the States, I immediately scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist to have the growth examined.”
Tim noticed that more doctors were involved this time, and that they were talking a lot more than usual. “I could tell by the way this was being treated that this was something serious, although no one wanted to admit it until we knew for certain,” Tim says. Finally the news came back: malignant melanoma. In fact, it had been all along.
Then it was a whirlwind: shock, fear, confusion. “It’s just really hard,” Tim says. “Especially for your parents, to see the fear on their faces.”
Looking back, Tim believes the disease was pretty certainly enabled by sun exposure during his childhood in Newport, Rhode Island; he was “always outside…whether it was sailing, surfing, golfing or working at an outdoor bar on the beach.”
This annual summer routine rarely included sunscreen, or anyone advising sun safety.
He and his family immediately transferred from Newport to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. “I remember one of my first meetings with the dermatologist very clearly,” Tim says. “The dermatologist that day informed me that a patient in my situation, with the recurrence, depth of the disease and the amount of time that had elapsed, had a five- year survival rate of 50 percent.” This was consistent with a Stage IIIB melanoma diagnosis.
The resulting surgery and skin grafting claimed most of Tim’s right forearm, along with the lymph nodes in his right armpit. This was followed by interferon treatments – an initial five weeks of intravenous deliveries and plenty of cold-sweat discomfort – “they call it shake and bake,” Tim says – followed by 11 months of self-administered injections.
Here is what else Tim remembers: “I committed myself to a positive outlook; I taught myself to disregard such negative news which I knew could be lurking around the corner at any time. At that point everything was one day at a time.”
In considering this battle, though, one shouldn’t confuse being positive with being passive. Tim says that from the start he had decided to be aggressive in treating the disease; at such a young age, he was determined to navigate what is always a significant disturbance in one’s life and live as close to normal as possible.
That has included educating himself, as well as a great deal of educating others about melanoma. People share the initial whirlwind: what is it? Where did it come from? When people ask how he “got” melanoma, Tim says he tells them: it is one-third sun; one-third genes; and one-third “nobody really knows.”
Still, he says, “this might be the most frustrating part of the whole experience – the fact that skin cancer is, for the most part, very preventable.”
Today Tim Fater is a CPA and works as a Senior Staff Accountant at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is married; he is an avid skier and a photographer. He is active in several melanoma-related causes. He has also spoken about melanoma at schools throughout New England.
Tim has remained aggressive through all of the doctor’s appointments, skin checks, scans and follow-ups that come with a melanoma diagnosis. There has been no sign of the disease since the fall of 2005.
He’s also remained positive.
“People get caught up with all the little things, and now after fighting melanoma you have more to fall back on,” Tim says. “You know: don’t worry about the small stuff.”