This is Mary and her beloved James. High school sweethearts who met at 16, they were best friends and practically inseparable throughout their 19-year courtship.
In 2007, the year they got married and just before his 28th birthday, James was diagnosed with melanoma. It started with a simple mole at the center of his back. Mary noticed it looking slightly darker and larger than she’d remembered and urged him to have it checked out during his next physical—a routine appointment that usually took place in the late spring after basketball season had ended (he was a high school varsity coach).
They did the surgery to remove the tumor and, as part of a sentinel lymph node dissection, extracted the lymph node in his left armpit to see if the cancer had spread. At that point, it hadn’t and he was cleared. It wasn’t until four years later, while James was showering, that he felt a large lump in his armpit—the right one. More cancer, another surgery and this time, the addition of debilitating treatments.
Another year would go by, basketball season would end, allowing James to slow down a bit, and new tumors would appear. More surgeries, new treatments (both modern and holistic) and still, James would power through, living by his mantra of Vincero—Italian for “I will be victorious.” With Mary by his side, he continued to fight his cancer and live his life. He even joked about his situation, saying “If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.” But as Mary tells it, that was James—an eternal optimist, wise beyond his years, who could see things so clearly.
The cancer eventually spread beyond his mole and lymphatic system and into his liver and lungs, completely taking over his body. On June 28, 2015, after a valiant eight-year battle with melanoma, James died.
He might not have survived his cancer, but according to Mary, he was very much victorious in life. “He won everyday in every way, never letting the cancer break him or his spirit. He got up and fought and lived life to the fullest,” she said.
As James drifted off, Mary, who never left his side, said the backyard was suddenly flooded with butterflies—a strange phenomenon that has become a regular occurrence since his passing. “James is not a quiet angel; he makes his presence known,” she said with a joyous giggle. “I know this sounds crazy, but he comes to me in butterflies. When I’m driving or walking or even in my office building—which is in the middle of an industrial area—I’m constantly surrounded by them; by him.”
As I talked with Mary over the phone, learning about James’ cancer and their life together, I couldn’t help but feel a heaviness in my heart. Even through tearful sobs, I could hear the joy in her voice as she shared memories of her sweetheart, her best friend. “He was truly my soulmate,” she said.
When I asked her about a favorite memory of James or what she misses most, her voice caught and she paused, taking a moment to fend off further tears before saying with a heavy sigh, “Everything.”
“I miss everything. His laughter and silliness and how he loved music. Anything from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Tupac and the Phantom of the Opera. The way we’d slow dance in the middle of the kitchen or how he’d sneak up behind me and shoot me with a Nerf gun, giggling as he Snapchatted my reaction. He was the most immature mature person I knew and I miss every single part of him.”
Whether camping at Lake Pillsbury, snowboarding and spending time at a family cabin in Truckee, going to Warriors basketball games, having lazy Sundays at home watching football, or simply sitting on the porch on a hot summer night, sipping cocktails and just talking—it didn’t matter what they did, as long as they were together. “We had fun doing everything or nothing at all,” said Mary. “We even enjoyed doing projects and cleaning the house together—we were such a damn good team!”
In honor of James and his spirit of fighting to the end, Mary and his family started an activewear clothing line called VINCERO, the logo for which James and his sister Jill designed. Created as a flash sale online pop-up shop, VINCERO goods are only available at certain points during the year and all proceeds go to the James Forni Memorial Scholarship Fund. You can shop here and learn more about the VINCERO mission at the end of this post.
Despite her heartbreaking loss, Mary strives to embody James’ strength and optimism. “I am so grateful to have spent 19 years of my life with James,” she said. “I believe God brought him into my life when I was so young for a reason. I am who I am because of James, and for that I am forever grateful to him and the love that we shared.”
For the past several weeks, I’ve shared staggering facts and statistics about melanoma and its growing occurrence among young adults and millennials. I’ve talked about the importance of early detection and shared my personal story of self-discovery along with a few others, acknowledging how lucky we are to have caught our cancers early.
I’ve also warned of its aggressive nature and how if left undetected, melanoma can quietly spread and be deadly.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Please #GETNAKED and check your skin regularly (at least monthly) for new or changing moles and lesions and listen to your body. It could very well save your life.
– S A D Y E E V Y N R E I S H
PHOTO CREDIT: Milou & Olin Photography
About the James Forni Memorial Scholarship Fund:
As a teacher, men’s varsity basketball coach and athletic director for Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, CA, James was passionate about helping young students and athletes succeed. Throughout his 11-year career, James gave so much of himself and absolutely loved what he did. This scholarship—started in 2016 and awarded to high school seniors as they head off to college—is a way to continue James’ legacy of giving back. Each year, through an essay application process where students are asked to write about how they’ve been “battle tested” and overcome adversity with the “Vincero spirit,” Mary and the Forni family select one student as the recipient. To purchase VINCERO branded attire, shop here and follow along here for shop announcements. Direct donations can be made to the following:
“James Forni Memorial Scholarship Fund”
2 E. Washington Street
Petaluma, CA 94952