Rachael Sandidge resembled a princess the night she was crowned North Ridgeville High School’s 2007 prom queen.
She owned the night of May 19, 2007. Her yellow, strapless dress complemented her long brown hair, which flowed in curls around her slightly tanned shoulders. The crown placed upon her head sparkled, just like her smile.
|Rachael, who was named North Ridgeville’s prom queen in 2007, with king Eliott Rodriguez.|
But she also wore a cloak of fear no one could see.
A month earlier, three days before her 18th birthday, she had received a disturbing diagnosis: The dark mole on the back of her left calf was malignant.
Rachael had become one of a growing number of people in the United States diagnosed with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2007 there will be more than 59,000 new cases of melanoma and that about 8,110 people will die of the disease this year. The risk of developing melanoma has been associated with the intensity of sunlight that a person receives over a lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Rachael’s family had no history of skin cancer, and although she worked for a tanning salon in North Ridgeville, she said she had never been a sun worshipper and rarely sought a tan.
“I was always pale and only tanned a few times, like four to five times before prom,” she said. “It’s a bit ironic … that I now have cancer.”
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Rachael was a high school senior who seemed to have everything going for her. She was an honor student and had been given several scholarships to Ohio University, where she had planned to go this fall to major in criminal psychology.
In Rachael’s view, all of the pieces of her life had fallen in just the right order.
Working since the age of 15, Rachael understood the value of a dollar. She bought her first car, a Scion TC, when she turned 16.
Her days were split between school and work. Keeping up a 4.5 grade-point average — Rachael ranked 23rd out of 271 students — and working meant more to her than going out for the volleyball team or cheerleading.
She did find time for a boyfriend — Mark Hart, 19, who graduated from North Ridgeville High in 2006. The two met almost three years ago at school.
He was Rachael’s rock throughout her senior year and even more so after her diagnosis of melanoma.
In November 2006, Rachael noticed a new mole on her left calf, just behind her knee.
“At first I was like, ‘Mom, take a look at this,’ because I thought it was a blood blister,” Rachael said from the home on Chestnut Ridge Road that she shares with her mother, Donna, and older brother, Ryan. Her father, Jack, lives in Denver. “It didn’t expand like crazy or anything, but it got darker. It was just weird.”
Rachael and her mother kept an eye on the mole from November 2006 to February 2007, but both felt that it just did not look right. That prompted her mother to call Rachael’s family doctor in February.
According to Rachael, the family doctor asked almost immediately if there was a family history of skin cancer. They told him no.
After the doctor looked at the mole, she referred Rachael to Dr. Cynthia Lavery Henry, a dermatologist with Westshore Primary Care in Avon.
The first appointment with Henry was set for April 2.
“April was as soon as they could get me in and right away she said, ‘That needs to come off.’ ”
Several days after having the mole removed, the doctor phoned Rachael’s mother as she shopped for Rachael’s birthday present.
“That mole on Rachael’s leg is melanoma,” the doctor said.
Her mother tried to comprehend what she had just heard.
“I was crying,” she said. “I could not focus. She was telling me to make appointments at University Hospitals.”
Her only thought was how to tell Rachael the news.
How does a parent tell her child that she has cancer?
It wasn’t easy; in fact, it was hell, her mother said.
Donna Sandidge wanted to go right to Rachael’s workplace and tell her, but she knew that first she had to compose herself.
Besides, her mother knew Rachael would want to finish her shift at the tanning salon, where she worked 30 hours a week.
After being diagnosed, Rachael put in her two-weeks notice.
“I just kind of felt weird saying, ‘Come tan,’ when, you know … I was having treatments,” she said.
C.J. Nock, an oncologist with University Hospitals who treated Rachael, downplayed any possible link between her work and her cancer.
“I don’t want to say her working there set it off,” Nock said.
“My understanding,” he said, “is that she was not using the tanning booth, she was just working there. I don’t think that had any impact, but, you know, the only thing to say in general is that bad sunburns are a risk factor.”
The increase in diagnoses reflects increased awareness, Nock said.
“People are more aware of it and are going to their physicians,” he said. “There is not a rapid increase (of the disease), but there is more of a physician access. There is more public awareness and clinical expertise.”
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Rachael quickly found a new job at Estes Express Lines in North Ridgeville working in the billing department but had to leave after 11 days.
The cancer treatments she was receiving began taking a toll on her body. She had severe headaches, and she said she felt as if she had the flu.
Nock advised Rachael to postpone attending OU because of the side effects of the treatments.
Ohio University officials promised Rachael she would get her scholarships when she felt well enough to move away from home and attend college.
Rachael, being optimistic, decided she would attend Lorain County Community College until then. She also had been awarded the two-year Trustee Scholarship from LCCC.
Rachael signed up for classes, but the next day, her hopes were dashed again.
The day before Rachael was to start her general education courses at LCCC, Nock said it was in her best interest to hold off for one semester. It was simply too much, too soon after enduring a summer full of surgeries, medical appointments and treatments, her mother said.
So Rachael plans to attend LCCC with her scholarship spring semester.
Just as her scholarships are being held for her, so is her job. Tom Lamb, terminal manager for Estes Express Lines, said Rachael could come to work as soon as she felt up to it.
Rachael hopes to be back at work in a couple weeks if all goes well with her new treatment regime.