Personal Melanoma Battle Inspires Oncology Nurse

By Sarah Garcia - April 12, 2022

Ask anyone, and they will probably tell you that nurses are among, if not the most important members of a health care team. They’ve even been referred to as the backbone of health care. Cailyn Ruff knows firsthand how important their role is in patient care.

In 2016, the then 17-year-old Ruff was embracing her senior year of high school. “I was getting ready to apply for colleges and just super excited about that chapter in my life.”

A born and raised Florida girl, she spent her free time running track and cross country, cheerleading, boating and enjoying the sunshine.

One day after getting out of the shower, Ruff says she noticed a spot on her head. “I have blond hair, so it was easy to identify, and I knew it didn’t look right.”

She went to her dermatologist to get it checked out. “I could tell right away that they looked pretty concerned, and they took a biopsy.”

Rare Melanoma with No Name

Cailyn Ruff following her surgery at Moffitt
In 2016, Ruff underwent a four-hour surgery at Moffitt to remove a rare form of melanoma from her scalp.

After sending the biopsy to pathology, her dermatologist passed it along to USF Health for further review. USF Health then passed it to Moffitt Cancer Center. “I was finally diagnosed with an extremely rare form of melanoma, that still to this day they don’t really have a name for,” said Ruff. At the time she was one of only two people in her age range that they had seen it in.

Ruff was scheduled for surgery at Moffitt’s Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Outpatient Center at the McKinley campus. Prior to surgery, she underwent a nuclear medicine scan to determine if the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes. Doctors determined that it may have drained to four lymph nodes.

“As a 17-year-old, you’re already nervous and it’s not really something you expect to have to go through at that age,” said Ruff.

Originally planned as a two-hour procedure, Ruff’s surgery took more than four hours. The surgeon removed a large section of her scalp and not four, but six lymph nodes.

“They told me had I waited, say, a month even to go to my dermatologist, the chances of it spreading would have been 50-50.” 

Ruff says she was on-site for more than 15 hours the day of her procedure. “I had probably four or five nurses who would come and check on me regularly. They were so compassionate and caring; you could tell they just wanted the best for me and my recovery.”

Thankfully, all of Ruff’s lymph nodes came back as normal, and her cancer had not metastasized. She didn’t require any chemotherapy or radiation but would need to return to Moffitt or USF Health every three to six months for a checkup.

Those checkups wouldn’t be the only time Ruff would return to Moffitt.

‘It Was My Calling’
She knew she wanted to be a nurse in high school and originally considered pediatrics. Her experience at Moffitt is what really grew her interest in oncology.

“The way the nurses showed so much care and compassion, they truly cared for me and my family and you could tell they were passionate about what they do.”

Following graduation, Ruff attended the University of South Florida, where she satisfied her prerequisites for nursing. She was then accepted into the nursing program at Nova Southeastern University.

In December 2021, Ruff graduated with her Bachelor of Science in nursing. Soon after, she passed her National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. Then, in what seemed like a full circle turn of events, was offered a job as a nurse resident RN in Moffitt’s Immune Cell Therapy unit. It was the only place she applied.

portrait of blockquote author

"It definitely feels like it was my calling. To be at this place that’s so close to my heart, it’s where I want to be."

- Cailyn Ruff, RN

“It definitely feels like it was my calling,” she said. “To be at this place that’s so close to my heart, it’s where I want to be.”

She says even though she never had to undergo chemo or radiation, receiving that diagnosis really changes you. “Cancer is scary for anybody. It changes your entire life, your way of living, the feelings and grief that come with it. With my experience, I can connect and really truly understand how our patients are feeling through this difficult process.”

Outside of nursing, Ruff explains how her experience propelled her to become an advocate for cancer prevention. She educates her family and friends on the importance of protecting themselves in the sun and going for regular skin checks. “Especially in Florida, even if you don’t have a family history of melanoma — I didn’t — you should always get your skin checked.”

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