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Chris Forward Finnegan

Chris Forward Finnegan Chris Forward Finnegan 1975 establishes endowment fund to teach the importance of cancer awareness and prevention

by Kathleen Osborne

Editor's Note: On January 5, 2010, HB said goodbye to a beloved alum when Christine Forward Finnegan 1975
lost her battle with cancer. The story below recounts a very special visit she made to our campus last spring. We honored by her courage and grace.

Hathaway Brown sophomores are busy young women. With days packed chock full of events and activities, this spirited bunch is always on the go – moving from classrooms to sports fields to after-school jobs and back home again, all with equal aplomb. Gather a group of these kinetic teenagers together, and at least one of them is sure to tell you that there's somewhere else she needs to be.

But not today. Today, these girls are in exactly the right place at the right time.

It's a typical spring day in Cleveland: The sun is shining brightly on the newly opened daffodils, but it's so cold outside that you can almost see your breath. The more than 50 people who have assembled in the HB Reception Room, though, don't feel the chill at all. That's because they're filled with the kind of warmth that sustains you when you're surrounded with friendship, love and camaraderie.

At the front of the room stands Christine Forward Finnegan, a petite 51-year-old woman who's sporting a smart blond bob and wearing a skirt adorned with a happy floral print. Along with the students enrolled in Denise Keary's 10th-grade Fitness class, Finnegan is flanked by a dozen or so of her own HB classmates, also members of the School's class of 1975. Mixed in as well are family and friends who have come from near and far. They're all here because Finnegan has something important to tell them.

"This isn't about me," she says as she takes her place behind the podium. "This is about you."

To understand how Finnegan got here today, you have to know where she's been. After HB, she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from New York's Hamilton College. She went on to receive an MBA, focusing on health care administration. Through the years, she has held several notable positions in the health care industry, including serving as Vice President of Managed Care for Saint Anthony's Health Center in St Louis, Vice President of Health Design Plus, a third-party administrator in Hudson, Ohio where she worked for 11 years, and she operated her own health care consulting firm in Cleveland, OH.

She also is the mother of three grown children. Sarah, 23, who is taking a year off to spend time with her mom before pursuing a joint MBA/JD graduate-school program, is in the audience. Sean, 21, and Brendan, 20, are studying at Miami University and Ohio University, respectively.

In recent years, Finnegan has added another designation to the list of her own personal defining characteristics: Cancer survivor.

She originally was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma of the breast in 2005. A year of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation put the disease into remission for two years. In November 2008, it came back. This time, doctors found cancer in Finnegan's lymph nodes and told her that it had spread through her entire body. Those same doctors said the cancer is Stage 4 and they gave her a prognosis that includes an end date. But Finnegan refuses to listen to that. "Today is my timeline," she says.

If you want the details about Finnegan's symptoms, treatment and test results, you'll have to visit her website: www.caringbridge.org/visit/christinefinnegan. She established this online portal so she could easily keep concerned friends and family informed about what's going on with her health on a semi-regular basis. As a busy full-time professional, she simply doesn't have enough time to lay out the specifics over and over again – and she didn't want the task to fall to her children. The site was launched at the end of 2008, visits to the site now number in the thousands, and people routinely tell Finnegan how much they enjoy reading the way she writes in this Internet journal of hers.

In fact, she says, writing has become her new passion. Everyone knows what cancer takes away, but people may not realize that it can bring things to your life as well. In Finnegan's case, it brought an urgency and an intensity that have sharpened her focus and strengthened her professional and personal commitment to advocacy and education. It also allowed her to more freely embrace the exuberant and outgoing aspects of her character.

"I've always been a positive person – cancer just took that and put it on steroids," Finnegan says. "When I got my diagnosis, I told my brother that I could either be depressed or I could dance. I choose dance."

When she was a student at HB, Finnegan was a member of the Drama Club. Nearly 35 years later, she jokes that she has returned to the School for her "one-woman show." The real reason she is here is that she feels compelled to share her story with people – many of whom she has known for years and others whom she is meeting for the first time today. The story applies to all of those gathered here, even the ones who are still in high school.

And the story starts with the establishment of the Christine Forward Finnegan 1975 Endowment Fund to support Cancer Awareness at Hathaway Brown School. The fund will support a health curriculum that includes speaking engagements, educational events and service initiatives focused on an illness that accounts for one of every four deaths in the United States every year.

"I'm starting this endowment fund to fund taking care of you," Finnegan tells the HB students. "The more awareness we have, the better the chances I and others have for beating this horrible disease."

Finnegan goes on to talk about what it feels like to learn that you have cancer and why it's important to be open and honest about what's going on with your body and in your life. Over the course of the next half-hour, she rattles off personal anecdotes and punctuates her message by pointing out – one by one – the good things the disease has brought to her life, in true "Late Night with David Letterman" style.

In a speech she calls "The Top 10 Reasons Why Cancer Can Be a Positive Thing," Finnegan deftly handles a weighty topic, sprinkling scholarly bits of wisdom with inspirational food for thought. She balances it all with a good bit of humor and grace.

Number 10: Why Not Me? When they're told they have cancer, many people question whether they deserve to have been stricken, Finnegan says. She decided not to take that route. Instead, she says, she realized that the "why" is immaterial – when it comes to cancer, it's all about the "how."

"You can ask, ‘Why me, Lord?' or you can say, ‘Use me, Lord,'" she says. "It doesn't make sense to me to keep this part of my life a secret."

Number 9: Bald is Beautiful. With this, Finnegan removes her blond bob wig. "Here I am," she laughs. Holding up the hairpiece, she turns to look at the HB students. "This is not me – this is just hair."

Number 8: It Creates a Vision for Your Life. "I've loved being a mom and I've loved being a career woman, but there's no time like the present," Finnegan says. "I've found out that I'm a good writer. And now it's time for me to write the next chapter of my life."

Number 7: What Does Science Know? Pointing to a table that holds an array of handouts from the American Cancer Society about breast cancer prevention and detection, Finnegan describes why it's a good idea to conduct regular self-exams of breast tissue and explains what to do if you find a lump. But even if you or someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, Finnegan says, "it's not the end of the world."

Doctors are learning new things and designing new treatments every day. In fact, the chemotherapy she received in 2005 was administered as part of a clinical trial. Finnegan motions to her dear friend and HB classmate Esther Cohen, who is seated near the front of the room. "When Esther was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, my clinical trial dual-dose treatment became her standard of care," she says with a smile. "Esther's in remission. I'm now praying for remission, too."

Number 6: It Creates a Circle of Love. "Cancer provides an opportunity for people to show you how much they care about you," Finnegan observes.

Number 5: It Fosters the Spirit to Serve. When she's well enough, Finnegan says she'd like to become a Chemo Buddy – volunteering with the American Cancer Society to drive other people to chemotherapy and to sit with them while they receive treatment.

Number 4: It Allows You to Embrace the Spirit of Love. Finnegan looks around the room and tells those in attendance that they have a responsibility to love deeply and passionately during their lifetimes. She asks them to reconcile any broken relationships. "Don't let it fester," she cautions. "It's not worth it."

Number 3: It Gives You the Spirit to Pray. Take time to be alone with your thoughts, Finnegan advises. Being mentally and emotionally centered can help you to accomplish your goals.

Number 2: It Creates the Spirit to Honor. All of us should be respectful of what we have in this world, according to Finnegan. "I will take care of my body," she says. "Because I have hope."

Number 1: It Commands the Spirit to Glorify.

Before she steps away from the podium to hug her family, share lunch with her classmates and tour her alma mater with HB teachers and administrators, Finnegan points out that every single day brings with it a chance to make a difference.

"The reason I'm here today is because I don't want to waste my cancer," she says. "I'm sharing it with all of you."

Endowment gifts can be designated to support a specific area at Hathaway Brown or can remain undesignated to aid the general educational purposes of Hathaway Brown. To learn more about endowment gifts, please contact Terry Kurtz at 216-320-8799.

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