It was a late January night when pain pushed Jonathan Finger to trudge halfway up cardiac hill and walk through the UPMC Presbyterian Emergency Room entrance.
The piercing pain in his abdomen had caught the 19-year-old hockey player by surprise and had become excruciating. Doctors listened to Finger describe the sharp pain, but struggled to find a cause, even after a blood test, and ultimately sent him home.
Finger was a first year, and the leading scorer for Pitt’s D2 club hockey team with no prior medical history, so there was no reason to suspect anything serious that first night in 2014. But when the pain persisted and Finger returned back to the hospital a few days later, doctors realized something was wrong.
The following month, his doctors diagnosed Finger with stage four peripheral T-cell lymphoma — a very rare blood cancer that causes white blood cells to grow abnormally in the body.
By the time he was diagnosed, the cancer had spread all the way into Finger’s bone marrow. In search of answers to his waning health, Finger left school.
“The idea that it could be cancer came up from the very beginning,” Finger said. “However, from the initial scans, they weren’t able to determine that. They had to do surgeries to get tissues for biopsies before they could come to a definitive answer.”
Now, a little over two years after his diagnosis, Finger, 21, has returned to the ice and is finishing up his junior year of college — even switching majors to pursue a career in physical therapy after seeing the field’s benefits firsthand.
Over the weekend, Finger and the rest of Pitt’s D2 Hockey team were eliminated from the College Hockey Mid-Area playoffs after being defeated by Dayton, 5-2. Although the season has ended, Finger and his friends and family are excited to return to the ice later this year for some of upcoming “Pucks for Johnny” events, a group of fundraisers that help collect money to fund his treatment through donations and T-shirt sales.
Although he entered remission in June of 2014, Finger still has to meet with doctors every three months to go through PET scans to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned, but he has now found a way to balance that and school.
The source of this particular form of cancer and how to effectively treat it are unclear. Little is known about the illness, with the only established risk factor being that it is more likely to occur in people over the age of 60.
Stephanie Finger, Finger’s mother, said the family consulted doctors from Ohio State and Johns Hopkins University, searching for answers.
“The only thing we knew was that it was caused by environmental factors and wasn’t genetic, but that didn’t stop me from constantly trying to understand why it happened to Johnny,” she said.
Finger’s father, Douglas Finger, had just received treatment for prostate cancer in October and November of 2013. Using his experience, he said he was able to “walk Jonathan through not only the debilitating nature of the news [but] the fight that [was] about to take place, and the emotional and physical drain [from] this awful disease.”
After many consultations, Dr. Roy Smith, from the Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, decided to put Finger on the aggressive and debilitating Hyper-CVAD treatment.
Finger went to the hospital every two weeks and would stay for one week to receive the treatment. Scars from where the probing medical instruments delivered treatment line his body are now permanent reminders of his battle.
“I lost a lot of weight and all of my hair. I was really weak and spent a lot of time at home just thinking about what was going on,” Finger said. “It was a very tough time for my family, but it also brought us all together.”
During the time of his treatment, many friends, teammates and family members visited Finger in the hospital. Some of his former teammates from high school started to hold a few fundraisers under the name “Pucks for Johnny,” to help raise money for all of Finger’s medical bills.
“It was really nice to see all the support from my friends and family, whether they were from high school or college,” Finger said. “Financially, we are still trying to make it through. In addition to the medical bills, hockey is a pretty expensive sport to be a part of.”
As of now, the “Pucks for Johnny” fundraisers have raised $5,000 to $10,000. The latest one took place at a deck hockey tournament this past winter in Mount Pleasant.
“We are planning to do a deck hockey tournament this summer, and an event at a Pitt hockey game,” Finger said.
After six to seven cycles, Finger was finally taken off the treatment in June of 2014 and went into remission.
Still too weak to return back to school, Finger spent his time trying to build up his strength again and looked for an opportunity to get back on the ice, even if that meant not playing.
One of his former coaches and family friend, Tim Cairns, offered Finger the opportunity to be his assistant coach for a youth hockey team during the fall and winter of 2014. Finger said he really enjoyed watching the kids come into their own on the ice.
“Even now, the kids will ask me about Johnny,” Cairns said. “They always laugh about this one time at practice when Johnny promised them that if they played the next game and didn’t get any penalties, he would buy them all chocolate milk. That weekend game came along, and the kids didn’t get a single penalty. Johnny had to go and buy all the kids chocolate milk after that game.”
In spring of 2015, Finger returned to Pitt as a full-time student and decided to pursue physical therapy instead of geology.
“At first, I never thought about pursuing a career in the medical field,” Finger said. “I had seen enough hospitals in my own lifetime.”
But eventually Finger realized he wanted to give back.
“The transition was really hard because I was still seeing the doctors, but then I was also trying to focus on my school work,” Finger said. “If it weren’t for hockey, I wouldn’t have been able to cope with any of it.”
During his first season, Finger was the top scorer for the team, even though his season ended early due to his medical condition. But he needed to temper expectations after returning.
“During the beginning of this season, Finger had an injury. You could tell that not being able to play reminded him of the time he missed when he was going through cancer,” current teammate Nick Bascou said. “But since his return after cancer, Johnny has really matured, and he lives his life to the fullest knowing now how easy it is to almost lose it.”
That injury, a torn MCL, was Finger’s first hockey-related injury.
“[The tear] happened the day before my 21st birthday, so that was a memorable way to celebrate it,” Finger said.
Finger hasn’t been able to play a full season of Pitt Hockey yet but hopes he will make a difference whether he is on the ice or not.
“Although it was a tough time, I am privileged to have gone through everything that I did,” Finger said. “It’s given me a new perspective on life that I hope to share with other people who are facing difficult circumstances like I did.”