For Stephanie Finley, the stunning diagnosis came as a literal one-in-a-million uppercut.
Now, after enduring the fight of her life for much of the past year, Finley is hoping her story of hope galvanizes the female lacrosse community as she officially settles into her new role as the face of the HEADstrong Foundation’s Game Hair Havoc campaign.
Finley, a former Division-I lacrosse player at James Madison University, was 24 years old and teaching and coaching at a high school in Dallas when she noticed she was having problems hearing, a malady that was also accompanied by strange feelings in her nose and a sudden change in her voice. Following a misdiagnosis by an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor in Texas, Finley flew home to suburban Philadelphia for her spring break, as well as to get a second opinion on what might be ailing her.
As it turns out, doctors found a mass of tissue in Finley’s head, which was later revealed to be Chordoma, an extremely rare type of cancerous tumor that can occur anywhere along the spine, from the base of the skull down to the tailbone. Chordomas are slow-growing cancers, incrementally spreading into bone and surrounding soft tissue; they are also most prevalent in men ages 50 to 60 and are diagnosed in just one in one million people. This equates to about 300 cases in the United States every year and less than 100,000 worldwide.
“It was like a bomb was dropped on me,” Finley said. “I was always very healthy my whole life. I played lacrosse, worked out every day, ate well, so it was just really crazy to get that news.”
What followed were three surgeries (Finley said she was the second person in the world to receive Robotic Spine Surgery), a week-long medically-induced coma and 42 rounds of radiation that occurred five times a week at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a process that culminated at the end of October.
In the meantime, HEADstrong wrapped up an immensely-successful Lacrosse Mustache Madness fall campaign, as male lacrosse players around the country grew out their facial for a good cause and raised $275,000 on behalf of the foundation. Wanting to offer a campaign to give female players a similar opportunity to fundraise, Game Hair Havoc was born. Creative and innovative female hairstyles were substituted in for facial hair, and Finley became a natural fit to lead the charge.
“When it comes to hair, I’ve always been a ‘look good, feel good, play good’ kind of girl,” Finley said. “I used to wear a bow in my hair when I played in college; on game day, it was my thing. Even though I’m not in college anymore, this was a great way to excite the college and younger female players to style their hair for such a good cause. The early feedback I’ve got has been amazing. I talked to my former college head coach, and she said she thinks coaches should get involved too. Everyone is so excited. It’s serious and for a good cause, but it’s also fun. It makes the whole experience real special.”
Finley was familiar with HEADstrong and the foundation’s origin long before the two partnered together for Game Hair Havoc. As a high school lacrosse player at Sacred Heart Academy in Bryn Mawr, she used to lace up her game cleats with lime green HEADstrong laces.
“It’s always been a foundation I’ve supported,” Finley said. “Years later, I never thought I’d be in this position; now that I am, I’m so excited to be a part of this platform. Lacrosse has been such a big part of my life. It’s gotten me through tough times and made me mentally and physically stronger. When HEADstrong told me this is what they wanted to do, I just said, ‘Let’s get it started.’”
Finley recounted how her lacrosse family at James Madison University rallied around her while she was at her lowest points in the hospital. Last spring, JMU women’s lacrosse rallied to win an NCAA title, and it was abundantly clear that Finley was always on their minds, especially the seniors on that team who were freshmen during Finley’s final season.
“I was pretty sick in the ICU for a week when they were competing for a conference championship, and I was recovering from major surgery during their NCAA run,” Finley said. “All of the girls, even the freshmen who I didn’t know, had my initials and my jersey number (3) written on their wrists. They were always playing for a bigger purpose. How special is that? It’s a testament to not only JMU, but the lacrosse community in general.
“This campaign brings the whole female lacrosse community together, which makes it even more special for me. Whether you wear your hair up high, in buns on either side, a ton of braids … it’s going to excite and bring us all together for an amazing cause.”
The campaign, which officially kicks off on Feb. 17 and runs through March 31, with the latter date being set to line up with the one-year anniversary of Finley’s diagnosis. She got the campaign off to a great early start, as a routine three-month scan on Jan. 29 came back clean.
Finley said she drew on her positive lacrosse memories to help get her through all of those lengthy hospital stays.
“I remember my mom coming into my room and telling me JMU had won, and all of those memories started coming back to me,” she said. “Getting up and walking around the ICU after laying in bed following a 12-hour surgery and being in a coma for a week, lacrosse taught me the strength to be able to do that.
“And doing something like this for HEADstrong has given me so much more mental strength. To be able to give back and have excited young women help people affected by cancer through HEADstrong is something truly incredible. I’m very lucky to be able to have this opportunity.”
Finley praised the core values of the HEADstrong mission, and said she was “absolutely floored” when she toured Nick’s House Swarthmore while meeting with the foundation about Game Hair Havoc. It was a comforting feeling, she said, and emphasized the personal human connections that HEADstrong establishes with its guest families, as well as the financial relief it alleviates from those going through a cancer battle.
Following her clean scan on Jan. 29, Finley isn’t scheduled for another one until late April, meaning she can just sit back and enjoy the full extent of Game Hair Havoc.
“I feel great,” she said. “I just started working out and getting back into running again. I’m at a time now where I’m just excited about all of this going on to help keep me distracted.”