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January 6, 2022

A hockey fan spotted a man's strange mole from the stands–and it may have saved his life.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jun. 28, 2022.

    From the stands of a hockey game, a fan was able to spot a potentially cancerous mole on the back of a staff member's neck. Concerned, she wrote him a note encouraging him to get it looked at by a doctor—an action that ultimately saved the man's life.

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    A sharp-eyed hockey fan spots a dangerous mole

    During an October 2021 NHL hockey game between the Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken in Seattle, Nadia Popovici spotted an irregular mole on the back of a staff member's neck. The mole was around two centimeters in length, irregularly shaped, and red-brown in color—all potential characteristics of a cancerous mole.

    Popovici had learned to spot the signs of cancerous moles while volunteering as a nursing assistant at hospitals and felt that she had to inform the man of what she had seen.

    To get the man's attention, Popovici waited for the game to end before typing a large message on her phone for him to see. "The mole on the back of your neck is possibly cancerous," her message read. "Please go see a doctor!"

    'She took me out of a slow fire'

    Brian Hamilton, an assistant equipment manager for the Canucks, had been the target of Popovici's message—and although he had seen her warning, he initially brushed it off.

    However, Hamilton later asked his wife to take a look at the mole on his neck, and she noted that it was a strange shape. Hamilton then visited the Canucks' team physician, who believed it to be worrisome and had it quickly removed.

    A biopsy of the mole would confirm Popovici's initial diagnosis—it was cancerous. Specifically, doctors told Hamilton that it was type-2 malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer. According to NPR, the cancer was only on the outer layer of the skin, which meant that it had been detected early enough to be removed and treated.

    "She didn't take me out of a burning car like the big stories, but she took me out of a slow fire," Hamilton said. "And the words out of the doctor's mouth were, if I ignored that for four to five years, I wouldn't be here."

    Once Hamilton knew that the cancer had been removed, he posted a letter on the Canucks' Twitter account in hopes of being able to find the woman who helped him.

    "That evening, [Oct. 23], and the message you showed me on your cell phone will forever be etched into my brain and has made a true life-changing difference for me and my family," Hamilton wrote in his letter. "Your instincts were right and that mole on the back of my neck was a malignant melanoma and thanks to your persistence and the quick work of our doctors, it is now gone."

    According to the New York Times, it took less than three hours for Popovici to be identified, and she was soon invited to meet Hamilton at the Jan. 2 game between the Canucks and the Kraken in Seattle.

    Hockey fan receives scholarship for her life-saving actions

    At the Jan. 2 game, Popovici and Hamilton met for the first time. During their meeting, Hamilton thanked Popovici for her life-saving actions, and she thanked him for listening to his wife when she encouraged him to get the mole checked out.

    Popovici also received a reward for her courageous actions, NPR reports. At the game, the Canucks and Kraken partnered together to offer Popovici a $10,000 scholarship for medical school, which she will start in the fall.

    "Some people are saying this is not even going to be a drop in the bucket, but trust me, it feels like everything," she said. "I'm really just so grateful." (Medina, New York Times, 1/4; Treisman, NPR, 1/3)

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