by Lou Mancinelli
Two-thirds of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 55 at the time of diagnosis, according to Penn Medicine. So five years ago, when Melanie Finley, then 27, a 1993 Springside Chestnut Hill Academy graduate who had lived in Chestnut Hill her entire life until she left for college, informed her gynecologist she’d been sweating through three different shirts a night and feeling bloated, ovarian cancer wasn’t on the checklist. Now a Center City resident, Finley at the time lived in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. She’d moved there to begin a career in pharmaceutical marketing in 2001 after graduating from Trinity College in Connecticut, where she had studied economics. Nor did her general practitioner think of ovarian cancer when Finley described her symptoms. A gastrointestinal specialist thought Melanie Finley might be pregnant. Approximately 4.7 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the time of the diagnosis are under 34, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance (OCNA). For a disease projected to be diagnosed 21,990 times in 2011, according to the OCNA, that is about 103 women a year nationwide. For Finley, it happened after a gastrointestinal specialist ordered an ultrasound. That’s when doctors discovered a 12-inch cyst had grown on Finley’s ovaries. It was August 2007, four months after her symptoms had started in April. Doctors performed surgery to remove the cyst the following Tuesday after an ultrasound the previous Thursday. They ran pathology reports and a week later informed Finley that the reports indicated she had contracted ovarian cancer of the right ovary. Still, despite the diagnosis she remained positive. “I thought, well, there’s other people much worse off in the world,” Finley said during a recent interview. In the days that followed, doctors performed more testing – blood work, upper and lower GI tests, a PET scan – to determine if the tumor had spread beyond her pelvis. About three weeks later they reported that the tumor had failed to spread. They had pinpointed the cancer and said it was contained within the right ovary. The following month, in September, Finley underwent surgery to have her right ovary and her appendix removed. After surgery, in addition to the physical healing, came treatment (something she still does five years later). Two weeks after her first surgery doctors performed a second procedure to install a port in Finley’s right shoulder, where later an intravenous needle was attached to facilitate chemotherapy. Five days later, her chemotherapy sessions started. Those presented the biggest challenge, Finley said. Her muscles hurt. Her bones hurt, though losing her hair proved to be less difficult than she imagined. The fact that her parents had a home in Ft. Lauderdale, where they could visit her, plus her local friends and others who traveled from Philadelphia to show support, helped to provide Finley with the strength she needed. Initial treatment meant six rounds of chemo every three weeks of three different drugs, plus other medicines to mitigate side effects. After those 18 weeks came a second-look surgery, which allowed doctors to take additional biopsies to determine how much of the cancer had been successfully removed. The surgery proved to be highly successful, hardly any traces of the disease remained. But because she was so young, Finley’s doctor chose to be aggressive with her treatment. He ordered 16 more sessions, one round of chemotherapy every three weeks. “Fighting chemotherapy really became almost like a second job,” said Finley. “Well, really, more like a first job.” Her other first job, the one that paid, was director of marketing for AERO Pharmaceuticals. She’d risen to the position after starting as a sales rep in 2005. She worked while she was sick, sometimes from home, during her diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps Finley learned to use the discipline she said was required of her to get through her chemo treatments to propel her career. But she’d been making strong career moves before her diagnosis. Or maybe it was her already developed and still-developing character that helped Finley maintain herself and prosper through a potentially glum period. After the chemo, it seemed as though the cancer had disappeared. In 2010, Finley continued to develop her career and capitalized on an opportunity to help launch a national sales campaign for WhistlePig, a new rye whiskey brewed by a former Maker’s Mark distiller. She moved back to Philadelphia and helped Go America Go Beverages launch the drink in 22 states. Between 2010 and 2011, Finley was responsible for 60 percent of the drink’s sales growth. For Finley, everything remained fine until February 2011, when during one of her follow-up appointments doctors discovered a cyst had developed on her left ovary. They performed surgery to remove the cyst, which was found to be void of cancer. These days, Finley, who two months ago started a new job with the fine liquor company Southern Wine and Spirits, goes for ultrasounds, blood work and various exams every three months, as well as for a yearly CAT scan to determine if she’s remained cancer free. She also started The Melanie Finley Ovarian Cancer Foundation, a group dedicated to raising awareness about ovarian cancer and raising money to provide financial assistance to women unable to afford treatment. Finley said she is lucky to have had good insurance, a good job and a supportive family to help cover the cost of her survival.