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Surviving Melanoma

A melanoma diagnosis at age 22 led Cindi Raissen to change career paths. She is now a certified lymphedema therapist and certified massage therapist, working mostly with breast cancer survivors who have lymphedema.

Cindi Raissen wasn’t too concerned when she had a suspicious-looking mole removed from her left thigh. After all, she was 21 and busy with school, friends and plans for the future. No one expects cancer at 21.

However, a year later a lump formed in that same part of her leg, and a biopsy showed Raissen had advanced melanoma—the most dangerous form of skin cancer. She was referred to Dr. Leonard S. Sender, a UC Irvine Health oncologist who is one of the nation’s leading authorities on cancer in adolescents and young adults.

“We were absolutely devastated,” she says of the diagnosis. “I think it was more shock. At 22 you think you’re invincible. You’re not expecting cancer. But I thank God for Dr. Sender. He makes you feel you are in good hands.”

After surgery to remove the tumor and lymph nodes, Raissen began receiving infusions of a drug called interferon. She faced numerous challenges during two years of treatment. Removal of the lymph nodes in her leg led to three bouts of cellulitis infection. Twice she was hospitalized and discharged with a PICC line—a catheter that pumped antibiotics into her body.

“I never let that get me down,” she says. “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 developed lymphedema, a chronic condition that causes pain and swelling, typically in the limb where lymph nodes have been removed.

Raissen had pursued her education and a career as a surgical technologist throughout treatment. But in 2013 she became a certified lymphedema therapist and certified massage therapist, working mostly with breast cancer survivors who have lymphedema. “I love helping others,” she says.

Now 32, Raissen is also planning her wedding and 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’s made me who I am. I’ve met amazing people along the way. I’m here to tell the story.”