If not for a possible brush with a shark while swimming off the California coast this summer, Eugene Finney said, he might never have known that he had a small cancerous growth in his kidney.
On July 8, Finney, along with his girlfriend and two children, was visiting his parents in Huntington Beach. He went for what he believed would be a typical day at the beach: sunbathing, wading in the water, and enjoying time with those he’s closest with.
But the day became anything but ordinary.
Finney said he and his daughter had ventured out to where the bigger waves were breaking, and as they tried to avoid an incoming wave by diving into it, they went deep underwater.
Finney soon found himself being tossed and tumbled beneath the surface, clutching his daughter, Temple, who was 10, close to his chest.
While holding his breath and trying to get his head above water, Finney said he was suddenly “hit” in the back — he had never been pushed quite like it before. He equated the feeling to getting plowed into by a car.
“It knocked us deeper into the water and spun us around,” he said. “I was disoriented, and I was in pain almost immediately.”
When they finally resurfaced, Finney and his daughter made their way back to the shore. As they emerged from the water, his daughter called attention to the bleeding wound — almost a slash — that stretched across his back.
“The blood was pouring down my back and my legs and so forth,” he said.
At first, Finney didn’t know how to explain what had happened — there were no surfers or other swimmers nearby that he could have smacked into, he said. The water where they were catching waves was clear of rocks.
Finney disregarded the incident, but couldn’t ignore the throbbing pain. To stop the bleeding, he pressed a towel to his back, and walked to the beach’s showers to clean out the wound.
As he showered off, his girlfriend, Emeline McKeown, saw crowds gathering on the beach. People were being pulled out of the water because two fins were spotted, Finney said.
Despite the sightings, Finney still didn’t immediately make a connection. It wasn’t until two days later, when he came across reports in the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets that a professional surfer had been “bumped” by an aggressive great white, causing closures at the same beach, that Finney assumed he, too, was the victim of an attack.
“I was stunned. I didn’t put the whole puzzle together,” he said. “I thought, ‘I think that’s what happened to me.’ The shark had been right near where we had been swimming.”
Lieutenant Claude Panis, who works for the marine safety division of the Huntington Beach Fire Department, said he didn’t recall an incident where shark fins were sighted the day Finney says he was hit, but he confirmed that two days later the beach was closed down when the surfer was “bumped.”
Panis also said Finney could have been nudged by a number of things — stingrays, or ocean debris — but there had been an uptick in juvenile great white shark sightings in that particular stretch of beach.
“It’s hard to say. If he had brought it to our attention we would have done more of an investigation on it,” Panis said.
Putting the thought of the possible shark encounter out of his mind, Finney and his family returned home to Massachusetts. But the pain caused from whatever occurred that day persisted.
Finally, conceding that something might be wrong, on July 13, Finney left his job at the Fitchburg Art Museum and drove to the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, not far from where his girlfriend lives.
Following chest X-rays, a CAT scan, and an EKG, doctors told Finney that the impact of the shark encounter had caused bruising in his thoracic cavity, a symptom of “blunt force trauma,” he said.
But they also delivered some more somber news to Finney that day, something the doctors had only picked up on because of all the tests they ran to identify the cause of his pain.
“They found a tumor growing in my right kidney that was about the size of a walnut,” Finney said. “It was the CAT scan that revealed the tumor. I’m 39 years old, I'm too young for this stuff. So it was pretty devastating — I don’t think anyone ever wants to hear that news.”
Luckily, doctors had noticed it before it was able to grow, and in late September, Finney underwent minimally invasive robotic surgery to have the Stage 1 tumor removed.
“It was discovered relatively early. It was contained, and his prognosis is very, very good,” said Dr. Ingolf Tuerk, chief of urology at St. Elizabeth’s. “If that [incident] wouldn’t have happened, and he would not have had pain, and it had not led him here, that tumor would have grown over time.”
Finney thanked the doctors for acting fast, and bringing the tumor to his attention. He also thanked the shark for saving his life.
“I’m pretty damn lucky,” he said. “I’m thankful I got this nudge.”