‘My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I’d known’ – Anita Finnegan

January 1, 2013 | by

One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experience …

Artist Anita Finnegan initially dismissed her condition as a “bad flu,” but when she landed in a local emergency room in 2006, she learned she was “98 percent leukemic.” She was told she had less than 24 hours to live.

Undergoing months of chemotherapy and fighting life-threatening infections, Anita fended off the leukemia and, once stabilized, was transferred to City of Hope. There, she was placed under the care of Eileen Smith, M.D., associate director of clinical research in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.

Bone marrow recipient Anita Finnegan, left, hugs donor Carolyn Rogers. (Credit: Bob Riha Jr., City of Hope)

Bone marrow recipient Anita Finnegan, left, hugs donor Carolyn Rogers. (Credit: Bob Riha Jr., City of Hope)

In 2007, Finnegan underwent hematopoietic cell transplantation, receiving healthy blood stem cells from a donor to replace her diseased marrow.  After the requisite one-year waiting period, she and her donor began corresponding and talking by phone, and in 2011 Finnegan and Chicago resident Carolyn Rogers finally met at City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.

Finnegan has had a difficult journey back to health. After the transplant, for example, she spent months in the hospital fighting severe complications and later spent more than a year recovering in a small apartment in Hope and Parson Village on the grounds of City of Hope.  

Through it all, she kept the same upbeat, persevering spirit reflected in the darkly whimsical art she creates in the Altadena home she shares with her husband, Ron, and their rescue poodle, Tito.

“Ron and I have been to hell and back – side by side,” says Finnegan. “The fact that I have life is the most amazing miracle. Ron, Tito and I are finding our way to better days.”

We asked Finnegan to look back at the time of her diagnosis and to ask herself what she knows now that she wishes she'd known then. What wisdom, soothing words, practical tips or just old-fashioned advice would she give her newly diagnosed self?
1.   In the words of my so smart, kind, caring, beautiful, amazing Dr. Eileen Smith: "See past this leukemia, see a future." We don't have to die. We can live. Dr. Smith recommended that I attend the Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion at COH. That year and every year since, I see a thousand – several thousand –people at the BMT reunion living it up as best they can. My point: Do not give up. There is hope. Ask yourself one question, "Do I have more living to do?" If so, fight on.

2.   There is help out there. You have to find it. It isn't easy if you are tired and beaten down and don't feel like it, but keep going.  Your caregiver and loved ones must be your advocate, and you cannot take no for an answer.  First, find out who your social worker is.  Find out every program available offered by organizations like the American Cancer Society,  the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Beckstrand Cancer Society.   Some organizations help with transportation, dental work, and rent and mortgage payments.  Pharmacies can have you fill out forms that work with drug companies to reduce co-pays on expensive drugs.  There are advocates in the hospitals for you. Use the system to help yourself.

3.  Follow doctors’ instructions – everybody is fighting to save your life. Don’t sabotage their efforts –  and your struggle –  by doing things like drinking, smoking, eating foods that will impede your recovery, or not taking your medications.

4.  However, if you feel that something is not right inside of you, don't give in and go along no matter what. Ask every question about every procedure.   Bring a loved one to your procedures to be your advocate.

5.  Have a positive outlook and encourage your caregivers to do the same. It will help you move forward and get better.  Realize that you’re in the hospital for a reason – and if you have a negative outlook, it makes it harder on you and the people who care for you.  Have faith and truly believe that your prayers are being answered by the people taking care of you.

6.   Take help. Ask for help. Do not be embarrassed. People offer, "Is there's anything I can do?" That is as far as they usually go. When they say that, say ‘Yes, please do this for me.’ Let them buy groceries or make calls or if you need some money, whatever you need.... Say, ‘Yes, I do need help, and this is what I need.’

7.   Talk about your fears. Go to a shrink. Don't hold everything in. Make friends with other patients in infusion, during chemo or in the waiting rooms. Don't close up and close down. Communicate with your doctors. They are in your corner. They want you to live.