It is almost impossible to imagine going through what the Brown family has endured in the past four years — two family members battling cancer, daughter Finley and mom A.J. Not only have they survived, but Finley’s fighting spirit and A.J.’s unwavering gratefulness are nothing short of astounding.
Their story of resilience is sure to inspire us all, especially those facing similar challenges today or in the future.
A few days after Finley’s 6th birthday, the Brown family was caught up in the whirlwind of her birthday party planning and end-of-year dance performance preparations (mom A.J. manages the dance studio, so she was also busy at work), when Finley excitedly ran into the room to tell her mom that she was becoming a woman!
She had found blood in her urine and was sure her menstrual cycle had begun. Knowing better, A.J. guessed it was a urinary tract infection. The pediatrician assumed the same, took a urine sample, and prescribed antibiotics until the test results came back.
A few days later, the result came back negative for an infection, so her doctor halted the antibiotics. Since Finley was still bleeding, she ordered an ultrasound to rule out other possibilities. The radiologist read the scan and instructed the family to head directly to Children’s Hospital in Oakland. There was a large mass in one of Finley’s kidneys, ready to rupture at any time.
A.J. was confused. “I thought to myself, ‘She feels fine and she looks fine, and we’ve got a show tonight,’” she says. “This didn’t fit into our schedule.”
At Children’s Hospital, Finley underwent several more tests. Meanwhile, as they waited for the results, says A.J., Finley was acting totally normally, dancing around, practicing for her show that night. Finally, a third specialist told the family their next appointment would be with an oncologist. Until then, no one had said the “C” word – they hadn’t even thought of it.
“That is the day that our life flipped over like a pancake,” A.J. recalls clearly.
Finley did not make it to her dance performance that evening. Instead, she was admitted to Children’s Hospital for immediate surgery. It turns out Finley had a rare type of pediatric kidney cancer called a Wilms tumor. The large tumor could rupture the kidney membrane at any moment. If it ruptured, it could cause sepsis or other life-threatening complications. Luckily, it was treatable with a specific six-month protocol of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
As parents we do all we can to protect our children. A.J. wondered how she’d failed.
“I asked myself, “What did I do to have this happen to her? What did I feed her or not feed her? What did I do when I was pregnant?” she says.
The reality is, it was just really bad luck – no one knows what causes Wilms tumors.
So began the Brown’s six-month journey “of darkness, with a lot of light mixed in.”
That light came from the community, from the Brown kids’ deep sibling bond, and Finley’s own fighting spirit.
The community rallied around the Brown family. “I felt like there were loving arms wrapped around me at all times,” A.J. describes. A Go Fund Me page was created. A meal train was booked out for four months. Bakes sales were organized. Gifts and cards arrived on their doorstep daily. T-shirts of Finley as a gladiator in a tutu were designed.
In addition, their local fire department “adopted” Finley when they heard she was battling cancer. Upon meeting friendly (and bald) little Finley at the park, firefighters Lucas Lambert, Katy Himsl and their unit felt compelled to help. They held a fundraiser, selling raffle tickets for a chance to win a family dinner at the firehouse. The firefighters used that money to send Finley’s family to Disneyland to celebrate after her last treatment.
“When you are tempted to fall into despair, there are so many people there lifting you up,” says A.J. “It was like a net.”
Finley’s younger brother, Cooper, was three-years-old at the time. The night Finley came home from the hospital, Cooper started sleeping in her bed with her every night (and still does to this day).
Finley lost her hair quickly, and Cooper rocked the head scarves with her in solidarity. At a party they attended, a boy made a comment about Finley’s hair looking like a boy, and Cooper stood up to him like an older, protective big brother. “It might be my proudest mommy moment with him ever – so far,” A.J. recalls.
Finley’s own positive attitude was incredible – she absolutely refused to let cancer dampen her spirit for life, no matter how sick she felt.
That summer, she continued to go to the weekly concerts at Moraga Commons Park. Because her immune system was compromised from the treatment, germs were a real threat: she couldn’t go to school or other indoor places where germs could easily spread. Outdoor concerts, though, were okay. At times, she was so sick that A.J. and Aaron had to pick her up and carry her to the car. After they parked, sometimes she would throw up in the bushes on the walk towards the stage. She would come right back out and say “Okay, let’s go!”
Some concert days she would just lay there; others, she would get up and dance. But no matter what, she wouldn’t let it stop her.
Finley had always been a social girl. When her friends delivered meals, Finley became upset if they just dropped the food off without staying for a visit. The Browns kept a huge vat of hand sanitizer by the front door. “We had more guests in those six months then we have ever had before or since!”
Finley has been in remission for three years now. At the five-year mark, she will officially be considering a survivor.
How does a parent get through this experience emotionally? How does she coach her child through it? For A.J., in addition to immeasurable community support, she drew much of her strength from her faith in God.
Even before Finley’s diagnosis, she had always taught her children: “God created you, God loves you, God will take care of you. And he listens.” They had always prayed together in bed, starting with what they were grateful for, and then for the people who needed the most help. After her diagnosis, they put themselves on the help list.
“We [adults] are our own worst enemies when it comes to healing because we fall victim to our own doubts and fears. The beautiful thing about the innocence of children is that they believe what we tell them. And what we told Finley from the very beginning was, ‘The surgery got the cancer out. The radiation and chemo are just to ensure it doesn’t come back.’ She believed it,” says A.J.
“I refused to believe that there was any other outcome than her being okay,” she says. “The alternative was unthinkable. I prayed every day for six months, ‘Oh dear God, please just let it be me and not her.’”
In an inconceivable twist of fate, A.J.’s prayers unfortunately came to be. Three months after Finley’s last treatment, she was diagnosed with melanoma.
“I thought, ‘I can’t even be mad. I asked for this’,” she says.
Lightning Strikes Again
Yes, the Brown family received two cancer diagnoses within the same year. Yet remarkably, A.J.’s first thought was, “As long as it’s not Finley or Cooper, I can handle this. In fact, I’m gonna be freaking grateful for it.” The first step was to remove the cancerous tumor from her leg.
Her intention was to go into the experience with the same grace as Finley. Melanoma treatment was much less invasive than Finley’s six-month treatment, but has a significantly higher rate of return. Two years later, A.J.’s melanoma did return. The new tumor was on the same leg as the first one, just a little higher up.
That new tumor hit harder because it was clear the cancer wasn’t a one-off. “Yet, I was lucky that it came back visibly,” she says.
Fortunately, they caught it before it spread to the lymphatic system, which can carry cancer to other parts of the body. This past November, her dermatologist found and removed a melanocytic precursor on her back.
A.J. will receive a full body check every three to four months for the rest of her life.
Despite her challenges with cancer, A.J. remains impressively positive.
“I approach my whole life differently, really. I approach everything from a place of gratitude versus taking anything for granted,” she says. “That is definitely the biggest gift going through something like that can give you.”
For example, when her kids are driving her up a wall, she reminds herself she is grateful to have two kids who are driving her up a wall.
“When you are faced with the possibility of a loss of one, all the other stuff becomes smaller. Not to say that I don’t have mommy meltdowns, I absolutely do, but I am able to pretty quickly come back to that place of, ‘Wow, I am so lucky that I have two kids that are growing up to fight with each other.’”
To her, dealing with her own melanoma has been much easier than handling Finley’s cancer. “I just felt so much gratitude, because nothing can ever be as bad as watching your child go through that,” she says. “Knock on wood, if I stay on top of it, I can still live a long and healthy life and watch my kids grow up.”
Before her cancer diagnosis, Finley was a squeamish kid. Now, after her experience, Finley talks about becoming a surgeon. A few months ago, she performed her “first surgery” while on a fieldtrip at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley: she dissected a squid, complete with ink and guts all over her. She loved it, especially taking out all of the body parts.
“Going through cancer made me realize I am tougher than I thought, and I learned that I really like taking care of people. I am really good at taking care of my mom when she has her surgeries. I don’t get grossed out like other kids at the blood and stuff,” she says.
“I want to be a surgeon someday, so I can help save other people’s lives. But I also want to be a pop star like Taylor Swift and I want to run my mom’s dance studio someday, and I want to be the first woman president. Can I be the singing and dancing doctor that runs for president?” she asks.
Finley is already practicing for a life in medicine. She helps her mom treat the wound on her back left by the removal of the melanocytic precursor.
“Time for me to be doctor,” Finley says each Sunday as she applies the silicone scar treatment in her own systematic ritual.
Ever since Finley went into remission, A.J. continually shows her gratitude for the support they were given by helping others. She fundraises for Oakland Children’s Hospital – where Finley was treated – and George Mark Children’s House through the Children’s Health Guild organization.
She and Finley also help raise awareness and funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted Finley’s wish to go to Hawaii. And, of course, she supports the local fire department however she can in helping to raise awareness for their most important causes and messaging. She may even consider a future run for the Moraga Orinda Fire Department Board of Directors.
Last fall, A.J. befriended another mom she connected with through Facebook . The woman’s family temporarily relocated to the Bay Area for a clinical trial to treat her son’s rare degenerative disease at Oakland Children’s Hospital. A.J. quickly stepped into action, setting up a meal train for them and eventually teaming up with her friend Kimberly Anderson, their friends at the Moraga Orinda Fire Department, and Bob’s Christmas Trees to bring Christmas to the displaced family and their two young boys, complete with a tree, ornaments, and gifts, all delivered in a fire truck (of course!).
Along with her profound sense of gratitude and drive to give back, A.J. is keenly aware that “tomorrow is not promised.” She encourages herself and everyone around her to seize the day whenever possible. This is a powerful message for all of us as we aim to live more intentionally and show compassion to ourselves, our families, and our community.