Cindi Raissen Opdyke wasn’t too concerned when her general practitioner removed a suspicious-looking mole from her left thigh. She was 21 and busy with school, friends and making plans for the future. No one expects cancer at 21.
A year later, however, a golf-ball sized lump formed in the same spot on her leg. A biopsy showed the tumor was an advanced melanoma — the most dangerous form of skin cancer. The Irvine resident sought out a UCI Health oncologist experienced in treating cancer in adolescents and young adults.
“We were absolutely devastated,” Raissen Opdyke says of being diagnosed with stage IIIB melanoma in the fall of 2005. “I think it was more shock. At 22, you think you’re invincible. ”
Surgery followed by immunotherapy infusions
UCI Health surgeon James Jakowatz removed the tumor on her thigh along with nearby lymph nodes. Then she began receiving infusions of a drug called interferon. During two years of treatment, she faced numerous challenges. Removal of the lymph nodes in her leg led to three bouts of a bacterial skin infection. Twice she was hospitalized and discharged with a special catheter called a PICC line that pumped antibiotics into her body.
“I never let that get me down,” says Raissen Opdyke, who still retains her accent as a native of Johannesburg, South Africa. “I stuffed the machine in my purse and let the IV line hang out, and I’d go out with my friends.”
Her last interferon treatment was in April 2007. But she also developed lymphedema, a chronic condition that causes pain and swelling, typically in the limb where lymph nodes have been removed. She deals with the condition with massage therapy and by wearing compression stockings to inhibit swelling.
Training to help other cancer survivors
Throughout all her treatments, Raissen Opdyke continued to pursue training and a career as a surgical technologist. In 2013, she switched gears and became a certified lymphedema therapist and certified massage therapist, working mostly with breast cancer survivors who have lymphedema.
“I love helping others,” she says.
She is zealous about getting regular skin checks from her UCI Health dermatologist, skin cancer specialist Dr. Janellen Smith (left). In fact, Smith found two early stage melanomas, one on Raissen Opdyke’s left leg in 2011 and another on her left ear in 2013.
Both were about the size of a pin head. The one on her ear required a little more work by UCI Health dermatologist Dr. Christopher Zachary, who specializes in skin-conserving Mohs micrographic surgery, to ensure that no melanoma cells remained.
Grateful to be alive
“I’m very fortunate to be alive,” says Raissen Opdyke, now 34 and married to baseball coach Bryan Opdyke. “I’ve watched a lot of people with the same stage IIIB diagnosis not survive this. I tell people, ‘I’m too blessed to be stressed,’ ”
She also volunteers her time to talk publicly about skin cancer prevention and the special needs of adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer.
“People who’ve never had cancer don’t understand,” she says. “They think you’re over it; you’re normal now. Well no, I’m not. Your life changes, and you have to face that. But everything I went through, I would not take back. It has made me who I am. I’ve met amazing people along the way. I’m here to tell the story.”