[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with the individual mentioned.]
In high school, Melinda Finn, of Rochester, New York, developed significant symptoms of neuroendocrine cancer but she wasn’t diagnosed until I was 21. At which point, she was already 4th stage. There was only one surgeon in the entire country willing to help her. As she explains:
“I was flown from Rochester to Los Angeles, California. The surgery was experimental. I was the only guinea pig they could find at the time. I became the first person to survive having my left jugular vein, carotid, and vertebral arteries removed surgically. It proved their experiment right!
“That was in 1988 and they weren't sure if the Circle of Willis, an arterial structure in the back of the human head, would take over for the side that was lost. It does! After signing off that they could continue the experiment when I expired on the table as that was expected, I survived a massive stroke and the surgery itself! It was a groundbreaking discovery and the chief surgeon, the amazing Dr. Derald Brackmann, wrote about it in the Journal of the American Medical Association four times and took film of it around the world to teach others how to perform this life-saving technique!”
“My cancer has returned twice more,” she continues. “Memorial Sloan Kettering did genetic testing and found that I had a genetic mutation which gave me recurrent paraganglioma syndrome. I’m currently a case study at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland and my main oncologist is at Sloan Kettering. While I’m battling with this third bout, I was also diagnosed with breast cancer and am now, thankfully in full remission from breast cancer.”
Throughout her journey, Finn has worked with several patients and caregivers to help them deal with diagnoses.
“It is my honor to do so,” she says.
Finn has taught journal writing workshops among other responsibilities at the Gilda’s Club of Northern New Jersey.
“During which time,” she says, “I noticed that those who couldn’t move past the fear and the anger lost their battles pretty quickly.”
Finn has authored a book, titled, Dance with Me which, as she details is about her life and how “to give others hope and, happily, it did.”
In effect, Dance with Me is the true story of a courageous young woman's struggle against incredible odds. Fighting against rare cancer, Finn views her journey as “a blessing in disguise”; one that helps her to grow as a person and never take anyone, or anything, for granted.
Finn offers some background on the book’s title:
“Each time my mother drove me to Geneva to see one of my doctors, one particular song always came over the car radio. The name of the song is ‘Dance with Me’ by [the music pop group] Orleans. It didn’t matter what time the appointment was. It didn’t matter what radio station Mom was listening to. It transcended time and space to be there for me, and let me know everything would be all right.”
“I had always been a sickly child,” Finn goes on to say. “I had everything from the mumps to pneumonia and back again. So, when I started getting sick in my teens, my mother just chalked it up to me being me. But strange things were happening and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Finn finally made an appointment with a physician she refers to as “the great and powerful Dr. Dutcher.”
“I liked him right off the bat,” she says. “He was very kind and yet very serious. He said that I had a large tumor called a glomus jugulare, or glomus vagale, which is a type of paraganglioma cancer, sometimes known as cancer of the carotid. But he also said that to determine just how far the tumor had spread and exactly how much damage it had caused, he had to order more tests.”
For Finn, her life is all about tests, but her spirit is never broken and is always upbeat. “That’s the only way to live this life,” she decides, “…no matter the challenges.”
Finn also coaches people, based on what she calls the “Three R System” that she created. Those three “r’s.” she says, stand for “recognize, respect, and release.”
“This is my life’s mission,” Finn concludes, “…to try to help others deal with something sometimes considered unmanageable. There is a rainbow during this storm. We have to look for it. That’s what I teach.”