NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Rachael Sandidge sits at her dining room table, acceptance letters from Ohio University, the University of Toledo and Ohio Northern neatly displayed in a memory book.
That is as close to college memories as the 18-year-old will have for the next year.
|CHUCK HUMEL / CHRONICLE
|Rachael Sandidge gets blood drawn by registered nurse Sandy Dye at the Ireland Cancer Center in Westlake.|
Over Labor Day weekend, former North Ridgeville High classmates visited, telling her of their new adventures at college.
“I wish I could have gone this year, but I know I’ll go,” Rachael said. “But I have stuff I have to do now, and soon enough, I will be there.”
Rather than enjoying her summer before heading off to college like other teens her age, Rachael spent her days traveling back and forth to University Hospitals in Cleveland for consultations with doctors, medical specialists and surgeons after being diagnosed with melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer — in April.
“I was busy, but nothing fun,” Rachael said.
In June, Rachael endured two major surgeries in order to rid her body of the melanoma.
The first surgery June 5 removed three areas of skin — a mole and its surrounding tissue from her left calf; two other, smaller moles elsewhere on her body; and three lymph nodes from her left groin. Of the three lymph nodes, one came back positive.
Everyone’s worst fear had come true — the cancer had spread.
But one question remained — how far?
On June 28, Rachael was once again wheeled into surgery for removal of 18 lymph nodes from her left thigh. She spent five days at University Hospitals, where she later had to undergo physical therapy.
“They took a muscle from the side of my thigh, that I guess we don’t use, and moved it to where the lymph nodes were,” Rachael said, pointing to her leg. She added that she has no feeling left in her left thigh, which may be permanent.
As for the 18 lymph nodes — all came back clean.
“We were thrilled,” said Rachael’s mother, Donna.
Rachael said she will take a slight limp in her left leg over melanoma any day.
After the surgeries, Rachael had to travel five days per week to University Hospitals Ireland Cancer Center in Westlake, where she received interferon intravenously. Interferon is a hormone-like protein made by white blood cells to help the immune system fight infections.
“It’s like putting my immune system on steroids,” Rachael said of the drug.
During the week of Sept. 9, Rachael learned there would be no more trips to Westlake for the daily dose of interferon. She is on a lower dose now that can be given in a shot with the help of her mother. Rachael will be given the drug three days a week for the next 11 months, as a precaution.
Right now, she is cancer-free, and the interferon helps ensure that the melanoma does not return or spread.
“Rachael is a really strong girl,” said her boyfriend, Mike Hart, 19, of North Ridgeville.
“If something were to happen to her or if I’d lose her …” he said before trailing off.
But Rachael’s doctor, C.J. Nock, a medical oncologist with University Hospitals, hopes Rachael will have a full recovery because her cancer was caught early.
“It didn’t surprise me to see Rachael,” Nock said, noting that melanoma is “commonly seen in young women and often related to sun exposure, or for some families it is genetic.
“For those who have the advanced disease,” he said, “it is tragic. For them to walk in and meet me when they are 30 years old, don’t look sick and are still working, but in a couple of months they are fighting a disease to keep them around. I can’t say enough about early detection. If you detect it early, this will not be a problem, but if you detect it late, it will oftentimes kill you.”
When asked why she thought this happened to her, Rachael thought for a moment and looked at her mom and said, “Everything happens for a reason. I think it happened to me to make people more cautious. It can happen to anyone. I have learned a lot and opened up people’s eyes.”
One such person is her boyfriend’s aunt, Libby Roysden of North Ridgeville.
“I had two moles removed, both are OK, but she prompted me to do that,” Roysden said. “We are all very close. She’s a smart, unique person and is very special. I am very hopeful for her future.”
As a way to help Rachael financially, Roysden and the Hart family of North Ridgeville are holding a benefit from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday at Razzle’s in Olmsted Township.
“Her personal and medical expenses are mounting as she is unable to work or attend school,” Roysden said.
Mark knows Rachael well enough to know she does not want pity from others, but he also understands the importance of having some help now and then, such as the benefit.
One thing having melanoma has taught Rachael is that no one is safe.
“Don’t think you are safe because of your age. Age does not matter. It (melanoma) is a big deal,” she said before walking into her kitchen with a slight limp — a sign that she has so much more to go and that she refuses to let cancer own her.