Christie Finley Remains Hopeful Despite Leukemia Relapse

By: Jennifer Hoffman

We often forget just how delicate life can be, how it can be yanked away from you or how it can unexpectedly be put on pause. For Christie Finley, the reality of that fact set in just before her 28th birthday.

After graduating from Purdue University and moving into the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia with her two best friends, Christie never considered how her fast-paced life would come to an abrupt halt. Her weeks consisted of going to work, hitting up local happy hours with her girlfriends, traveling to new cities, exploring her new neighborhood and spending weekends down the shore basking in the Ocean City sunshine; that life would soon become a thing of the past.

One morning, Christie woke up with a swollen mouth and swollen gums, feeling under the weather and certain that she had the flu. Her discomfort grew and she soon began having trouble focusing at work and found herself profusely sweating throughout the day, especially at night while she was asleep.

She began to worry about what exactly her symptoms were indicating, and headed to her primary doctor to see what was going on. Her doctor ordered a range of tests and blood work, and sent her back home. The next day before work, Christie received a nerve-wracking phone call from her doctor letting her know her test results were a bit concerning. She was told to go to Bryn Mawr Hospital immediately due to an abnormality with her white blood cell count. Once checked into the ER, she was unofficially diagnosed with leukemia; a full bone marrow biopsy would later confirm her doctor’s fear.  It was in that moment that life as Christie knew it was put on hold. The rest of her twenties would go from a lifestyle of working, socializing, and traveling, to one of isolation and recovery.  

“When the oncologist came in, he was like we think you have leukemia and you’re probably not going to leave the hospital for a few weeks…and I was like excuse me like let’s just think of what a normal 27 year old thinks in their head mid-November….um okay Thanksgiving, my birthday, Christmas, one of my girlfriends is visiting from Texas for New Years, I was supposed to go to a black tie event that Friday night…I was like why is my life being put on super pause,” Christie recalled.

From there she started chemotherapy almost immediately, with a PICC line intact she was hooked up to a machine administering the medicine 24 hours a day for a week straight. After the initial treatment, Christie decided to return back to work to gain a sense of normalcy. One of her friends got engaged that weekend so she went out and celebrated which in the moment felt right, but after the night concluded Christie started to notice she wasn’t feeling all too great.

“So, I went through the chemos, kind of went back to normal life, four weeks back at work…and ha, just kidding, you’re not going back to normal life, it’s back” she said. 

Life had thrown her another curve ball when she was told that her cancer had returned. After transferring to Penn and being attached to chemo therapy for a week straight a second time, she was officially told that she had Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) with a high rate of relapse in the first two years. To add to her battle she was told that she had neutropenia on top of AML, meaning her count of helping white blood cells called neutrophils was dangerously low and she was more vulnerable to infectious diseases. For Christie this meant the likelihood of her returning to her work and her current career anytime soon was minimal.

She went out on short term disability, then long term disability and is currently transitioning on to social security.

Christie became introduced to the HEADstrong Foundation through their Holiday Feast at Penn. Christie and her family were served Thanksgiving dinner there in 2018 and 2019 and that is where their connection began. “I’ve spent two Thanksgivings in the hospital unfortunately, but bringing that light on Thanksgiving when we can’t spend time with our extended families or whoever can’t make it down to the hospital, that was just great.” She said.

Her treatment now requires a restricted diet, limiting the foods she is allowed to eat. “Now I’m 15-20 lbs. lighter and I can tell it’s the muscles that are definitely going away,” she explains. She has also lost a lot of her energy and as a result feels worn down after daily tasks. “I showered this morning and was like, I need to lay down. For someone who was go-go-go all of the time and was always fit, just getting exhausted from things that I used to do that didn’t tire me out has been frustrating,” she said.

Having lost her hair to the chemo (Christie noted that beanies and hats have become her best friend), treatment has also resulted in the shedding of her skin’s external top layer.  Her skin has become a lot more sensitive than it used to be causing a higher chance for irritation, itchiness, and discomfort.

Christie underwent her bone marrow transplant in November of 2019, and despite how physically and mentally draining her recovery has been thus far, her coping mechanisms derive from her strong and positive mindset. “You just have to change your mentality”, she says, “Whether you’re in my situation or not, I think a lot of people need to change their mentality and be more thankful and be happier and choose to be happier and not dwell on things.” 

She is anxiously awaiting day 100 of her transplant so her restrictions can be uplifted and maybe she can finally have some Mack & Manco Pizza. Christie is also very eager to one day meet her bone marrow donor, a 29 year old male from Germany who she’s nicknamed Hans and who many of her friends and family think could be her soulmate.

Finley thought her late 20’s would be the best time of her life, looking forward to settling down and eventually starting a family. She never imagined it would consist of countless doctors’ appointments and hospital stays but she’s rolling with the punches and is not focusing on what she’s missed out on, rather on what’s to come. 

“If you think of what you’re missing, you’re missing out on what opportunities you have,” she said. 

Now 29 years old, having gone through being diagnosed with leukemia twice in her life, Christie is figuring out what her new “normal” is. For the past 15 months she has had no stability, one day she’s fine, the next she’s not, but she is taking it in stride and looks forward to the next chapter, seeing where life takes her. “It definitely makes you take a step back. I guess it reminds a lot of my family members and my friends and whoever I’m connected to on social media, yes, please take a step back and just don’t be going through the motions of life, because literally within a second it could be yanked away from you or you have to be put on pause” she said.