Cancer’s Cover Girl
As model Alexandria Finley steps inside the downtown Las Vegas coffeehouse — her long, windblown blonde hair flowing over the top of a two-piece leopard print outfit — you realize why her career has included strutting down runways for Guess Jeans and Beach Bunny Swimwear, gracing billboards for X Rocks and X Burlesque, appearing in a music video for The Killers, and working as a cover model for Las Vegas Magazine, where she’s been featured as an Instagram Personality to Follow.
The simple fact is: People can’t help looking at Finley. She is what branding professionals love in a model — magnetic. Men, and women, watch her. The turn-of-the-head reaction of patrons on this April day at PublicUs — a mecca for coffee on Fremont Street with a distinct hipster vibe, where it’s not hip to stare — reinforces the Florida State University study “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” where research found good-looking people capture our attention nearly instantaneously, rendering us temporarily helpless to turn our eyes away from them.
“I’ve found my cancer diagnosis hard to believe,” says the 5 foot 9 inch Finley, whose thick hair, flawless complexion, quick smile, and elegant, graceful posture practically broadcast she’s in the best of health. She’s sitting at a table with her husband, rock guitarist Frank Sidoris, a member of the international touring group, Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators. “I’ve always taken care of myself, had a trainer, ate right, worked out. It’s been hard to understand.”
While still the very picture of good health, the 31-year-old Finley proves yet again that looks can be deceiving. In February, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, one of 13,170 new cases that the American Cancer Society estimates will be diagnosed this year in the U.S. Annually, an estimated 4,200 women will die from the disease.
On April 15, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, Finley embarked on the radiation and chemotherapy treatment she hopes will save her life. It’s too early to tell how well it’s working on a cervical cancer that is already at Stage 3. How she got to this time and place is instructive, an emotional roller coaster for her that reveals the dangers of the human papillomavirus (HPV), of putting off pap smears, and of not having insurance.
Her story also reveals how technology helps to connect those who need help with kind-hearted people, why who you know can often trump what you know.
It was in May 2018 that Finley – a Las Vegas resident since moving from California with her family at age 7 – began to feel a little more tired than usual. Bleeding became heavier during her period. At a doctor visit, she said her physician found everything largely normal, though there was a slight pH imbalance in her vagina, meaning the balance between good and bad bacteria was a tad off. She said the doctor didn’t seem particularly concerned, nor was she.
“Women in my family have reproductive issues so I wrote it off as that,” she says.
Over the next several months, however, the bleeding intensified. She experienced lower back pain, some cramping and nausea, and more fatigue.
A trip to the doctor at the beginning of 2019 included a Pap test, where medical professionals check the cervix for any cells that aren’t normal. The test found serious changes in the cells of her cervix, so her physician, Dr. Alexandra McDaniel, ordered a biopsy.
The results were clear — Finley had cervical cancer, just as she says her mother did several years ago.
“It seemed surreal,” she says, her voice quavering. “Other than a little extra tired, I felt normal. How I felt came in waves — sadness, anger, confusion, disbelief...Frank was in London when he found out.”
Dr. Jyoti Desai
Dr. Jyoti Desai, an assistant professor in the UNLV School of Medicine Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, notes that cervical cancer — once one of the most common cancers affecting U.S. women — has dropped to 14th in frequency, largely because of the Pap smear screening introduced in the 1950s. The National Institutes of Health reports that between 1955 and 1992, U.S. cervical cancer incidence and death rates declined by more than 60 percent.
“Screening is so critical,” says Desai, who has not treated Finley. “With it, cervical cancer is largely preventable.”
Desai points out that because precancerous lesions found by Pap smears can be treated and cured before they develop into cancer, and because cervical cancer is often detected before it becomes advanced, the incidence and death rates for the disease are relatively low. According to the most recent data, the incidence rate for the disease is now 8.1 cases per 100,000 in the U.S. The annual mortality rate is 2.4 deaths per 100,000 women.
The UNLV physician emphasizes that medical experts now recommend that starting at age 21, women should get a Pap test every three years until age 65. For women age 30 to 65, who want to lengthen the screening interval, it’s recommended they they have a combination of a Pap smear and testing for the human papillomavirus virus (HPV) every five years.
According to the National Cancer Institute, virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The virus can also cause oropharyngeal, anal, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. The NCI, which stresses that nearly all sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, also calls attention to the fact that most HPV infections don’t cause cancer – your immune system usually controls the infections.
In its literature on cervical cancer, the American Cancer Society makes clear that HPV is the most important risk factor while noting that “cervical cancer may run in some families. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are higher than if no one in the family had it. Some researchers suspect that some instances of this familial tendency are caused by an inherited condition that makes some women less able to fight off HPV infection than others.”
“The cancer was caught earlier in my mother,” Finley says.
Dr. Karen Jacks, a Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada medical oncologist, says: “cervical cancer may run in families but still is felt not to be a true hereditary cancer. Nearly all cervical cancers are HPV-associated, even those with a family history of cervical cancer. A familial connection is likely to be due to non-genetic risk factors, including smoking and obesity, as well as an inherited condition weakening the immune system.”
Dr. Desai is a true believer in current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations calling for boys and girls to get the HPV vaccine before they’re sexually active, at age 11 or 12. Catch-up vaccines are recommended for males up to the age of 21 and for females up to 26 who did not receive the vaccination at a younger age.
While targeting the HPV types that most commonly cause cervical cancer, the vaccine also protects against the HPV types that cause most genital warts. But Dr. Desai underscores the fact that the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types. In other words, it does not prevent all cases of cancer. “It’s important for women to continue to get screened for cervical cancer,” she says.
Finley says she was vaccinated for HPV when she was 21.
It is April 12, three days before Finley will start radiation and chemotherapy in Los Angeles. While nibbling on a breakfast sandwich inside PublicUs, she remembers that even after the biopsy showed she had cancer, she never thought the upcoming weeks of treatment would be necessary. Nor did she think she’d go out of town to get it.
“My doctor in Las Vegas thought surgery would take care of it all and she urged me to find a surgeon.”
When you don’t have insurance, that’s easier said than done. While Finley often did well financially in modeling and in her part-time hospitality work at the Venetian, she didn’t have medical coverage to go with her savings. She made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Though the Las Vegas surgeons she visited seemed sympathetic, they said they didn’t want to saddle her with a bill that would strap her financially for years. No one would do her surgery.
“I was touring in London then and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from her,” said Sidoris, who urged Finley to let her friend, Nikia Daoust, start a GoFundMe page for her. GoFundMe is one of several internet platforms that allows people to raise money for individuals facing challenging circumstances.
It turned out that Cheryl Hall, the tour manager for the band Sidoris played in, knew a renowned OB-GYN and researcher, Dr. Ilana Cass, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. After meeting with Finley, she agreed to take Finley as a cash patient.
“At first I was really reluctant to do a GoFundMe – I wanted to keep what I was going through private, but I decided it made sense,” Finley says. “When I came out in public with my cancer, a number of women told me they had put off a Pap test as well. So I got to help some people. I hope by sharing my story many other women will stay up on their screening. It’s such a personal area, women don’t like to do it, but you have to.”
In just a few days, much of the initial $65,000 goal was raised on the GoFundMe page headlined “Help Alexandria Finley Beat Cancer.” (How much more is necessary to cover medical expenses is unknown at this time.) Finley couldn’t believe the outpouring of love that came with the donations. “People were contacting me on Facebook, sending me messages every which way. There are so many good people out there.”
The donated money would largely cover the surgery done by Dr. Cass on March 21, the day before Finley’s birthday. The procedure was a radical hysterectomy, one that both Finley and her doctor hoped would end her nightmare.
But it wasn’t to be.
Instead, she learned her cancer was Stage 3 instead of Stage 1, having spread to lymph nodes. “When I woke up, I was very upset,” Finley says. “I thought the surgery would be it.”
Dr. Cass, who did remove the lymph nodes, said the remaining cancerous tumor would be better treated through radiation and chemotherapy.
Worried about the woman he loved, Sidoris did something he had been thinking about for a long time. He popped the marriage question on Finley’s birthday, March 22, the day after she got the bad news.
“Frank wanted to make me happy,” she says. “And he did.”
The couple was married on top of a Hollywood hotel two days later, three days after a surgery that Finley says was done through an incision much like that used for a C-section. Though barely able to walk down the aisle, photos show Finley wore a broad smile during the wedding festivities.
“I do have my dark moments as I get through this,” she says. “But what this is teaching me is to appreciate the people around me, people who’ve come out of the woodwork. I’m now more positive about people. That’s a good thing.”
If you want to help defray Alexandria Finley’s medical expenses, go to https://www.gofundme.com/help-alexandria-finley-beat-cancer
Alexandria Finley and Frank Sidoris on their wedding day.