MUSKEGON, Mich. (WZZM) - Brett Hayes was just 34 years old when he died from melanoma skin cancer.
It's been four years and it's still difficult for his mother Nancy Hayes to talk about.
"Extremely hard to talk about," says Nancy. "He's gone. He's not coming back."
In 2002 Nancy asked her son to get the brown mole that had been on his shoulder for many years checked. He smiled at his mother and said, "Oh mom, he says you're just making a mountain out of a mole hill."
Unfortunately, mom knew best.
In 2005, Brett was diagnosed with stage three melanoma. He had surgery to remove the mole and for two years life was good,
"[I] kind of had that dream that you know he's the one that's gonna make it. This is gonna be good." says Nancy.
But in 2007, Brett learned the melanoma had metastasized to his adrenal glands, his spleen and brain. A round of radiation and chemotherapy gave his family hope, but only for a short time. The melanoma spread to his spinal cord just a few months later.
Brett had one final surgery in October 2008, but it wasn't enough to save his life. Brett died on December 15, 2008. He left behind his wife, a six-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.
The life expectancy for people diagnosed with melanoma is less than five years. Dr. Nina Johnson, a radiologist with Mercy Health's Johnson Family Center for Cancer Care, says it's because most diagnosis come too late,
"Sometimes melanoma will spread early, and even if the lesion is very small it will spread before you see any changes in the primary lesion of the skin," says Dr. Johnson. "Melanoma has the worst prognosis of all the skin cancers."
In the last ten years in West Michigan, the deaths from melanoma have been on the rise. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, there have been 81 deaths in Ottawa County, 52 in Muskegon and 154 in Kent.
Those deaths -- and that of her son -- are why Nancy Hayes has dedicated herself to educating people about the disease through her non-profit "Families Against Melanoma."
"When you're 30 or 20, [you think] you're invincible and these things aren't going to happen to you," says Nancy. "So many people don't understand what melanoma really is. The conception is that it's just skin cancer. It can be cut out."
But Nancy Hayes knows it's more than that -- and she looks for the opportunity to tell anyone who'll listen.