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Cancer Survivors Opdyke, Harrington Connect at Ducks Game

'There's a comfort in sharing what I've been through with someone who gets it.'

by Jenelyn Russo @JenelynRusso / Special to AnaheimDucks.com

Cindi Opdyke and Kevin Harrington realize they have much more in common with each other than just their love for Ducks hockey.

They both are part of a club neither intended to join. But they are survivors, two warriors who know the reality of having their lives turned upside down by cancer.

With nearly five years of chemotherapy treatments between them, they both know the darkness that comes with fighting the disease, how even the good days can be laced with uncertainty, how the fight is never truly over.

So when the two Ducks fans had the chance to meet in person after several months of communicating online, it was like a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief all at once.

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"We all hit it off instantly," Kevin said. "It felt like we'd known each other our whole lives."

Cindi and her husband, Bryan, graciously invited Kevin and his fiancée, Rikke, to join them at Honda Center last week as the Ducks faced off against the Vegas Golden Knights. In between taking in the action on the ice, the two cancer survivors spent the evening sharing experiences and comparing notes on their battles and triumphs against the harrowing disease.

"It was really great to spend time with someone who totally understands what you're going through," Cindi said. "I've worn Kevin's shoes, and he's worn mine. He knows that the small things are not small things."

Cindi and Kevin quickly discovered there's a unique level of empathy and understanding present when the person listening to stories of side effects, pain and fear is someone who has walked the same traumatic road.

"There's a comfort in sharing what I've been through with someone who gets it," Kevin said. "My wall was down in talking with her. For those minutes, I didn't have to be strong."

After spending much of 2016 in the fight of his life, which included five months of extremely intense chemotherapy, 2017 has been a year of good reports for Kevin, who is currently testing clear of cancer.

Despite the positive news he's received in recent months, Kevin admits the anxiety lingers. Each time a test or a scan comes back showing a slight uptick in his tumor markers, the mental burden returns.

"Then it's back to the day-to-day all over again, where I'm paying attention to every little thing," Kevin said. "Cancer has a way of holding you right where you're at, and you have to fight to move forward. I try not to let it get to me, but it's hard not to think about. It can be tough to stay positive."

The journey isn't over and there are still some bumps in the road, but Kevin's cautionary sense of relief is coupled with tremendous joy, as the natural athlete has been able to return to surfing and playing hockey with energy and a renewed sense of clarity.

"I love that I've been able to get back to these sports," Kevin said. "When I go over the boards or stand up for a wave, my mind is free."

After beating a stage 3B melanoma diagnosis in 2005, Cindi's focus has turned to fighting a rare desmoid tumor, an abnormal and mostly mysterious growth that affects approximately one in one million people.

Attached to the inside wall of her stomach, this inoperable grapefruit-sized mass is non-malignant but is locally aggressive and leaves Cindi in constant pain. Without any proven plan of care for the tumor, she has been forced to pursue a "trial and error" approach to treatment, a path that has included four different chemotherapies and little to no improvement.

Tweet from @AnaheimDucks: Dedicated fan and cancer survivor Cindi Opdyke (@CINDI_OP ) gets a special surprise from the #NHLDucks. pic.twitter.com/D7jKG0xXlC

"It's so rare, and each case is unique," Cindi said. "The scariest part about this is that there are no answers. I have to be my own advocate. It's my reality, and I don't lie about my reality."

In a few weeks, Cindi will attack the beast again by beginning a higher dose of a pill-based chemotherapy she tried previously that saw slight shrinkage in the tumor. She knows what's coming in the way of side effects, including blisters and rashes on her hands and feet, as well as hair loss. She's approaching this round of fighting on her own terms by cutting her hair and focusing on the positive.

"This is about my quality of life. That has to be my focus because that's what is being taken from me," Cindi said. "Happiness is a choice, and I don't choose it every day. But that's what I hold on to. It could be so much worse."

As they shared with each other their struggles and scars, Cindi and Kevin found a wide range of commonalities, including the difficulties associated with managing permanent side effects, as Kevin has found with neuropathy and Cindi with lymphedema. They both carry fears about starting families in the future and the challenges that may bring.

But the two found plenty of positive connections too, beginning with the knowledge that an attitude of joy is born out of a heart of gratitude. Both are grateful for their support systems, which are rooted in the selfless dedication of Bryan and Rikke.

"They don't get enough credit," said Cindi, who will celebrate her one-year wedding anniversary with Bryan next month. "They choose to be here when they don't have to be."

In addition to their families, the continued support Cindi and Kevin receive from Ducks fans remains constant and strong.

"The outpouring from the fans is still unbelievable," Kevin said. "The encouraging words I receive like, 'thinking of you' or 'stay strong,' even in the offseason, emotionally it can really change my day. That's what the Ducks community is all about. Amazing people who are in your corner."

Prior to puck drop at last Wednesday's pre-Thanksgiving tilt, the Ducks held a moment of silence in recognition of the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer initiative and in honor of those who have fought and are still bravely fighting this disease.

As the arena lights dimmed and the crowd became quiet, it couldn't have been more fitting that these two fighters who inspire each other stood side by side. In that moment, Cindi and Kevin found comfort in the realization that while the war is not yet won, they know they aren't fighting alone.

"It was a special moment, and I couldn't help but get emotional," Kevin said. "It felt like we were all there that night together for that exact reason."

"We definitely have more of a connection because we've lived it," Cindi said. "I'm certain after tonight that the four of us will be lifelong friends."

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