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Going with Lance on Tour of Hope
by Doug Grow, Star Tribune

Doug GrowOn Oct. 1, Jim Owens will be among 20 riders mounting bicycles in Los Angeles. Eight days later, this special relay team is to dismount in Washington, D.C.

The riders will be divided into four teams. Each team will pedal about four hours, then get 10 hours off to rest and to talk with anyone who will listen about how the human spirit is stronger than cancer.

Jim participated in the 2004 Tour of HopeThey'll be on their mission 24 hours a day, seven days a week, averaging more than 20 miles an hour across the country. They'll frequently be joined by the king of bicyclists and cancer survivors, Lance Armstrong.

Eight days of desert, mountains, prairie, wind, rain and perhaps even a snowflake or two.

"Compared to what many of us have been through, this will be a walk in the park," said Owens, who is from Edina.

What Owens and 13 other members of the team have been through is cancer. The other riders are oncologists and cancer researchers.

The purpose of this Tour of Hope, which is sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, is to show there can be life after cancer and to raise money for research. Riders will make stops at cancer centers across the country to raise spirits. And they'll give media interviews to anyone with a notebook or microphone.

We hear such phrases as "life after cancer" and "Tour of Hope" so often they become almost trite -- until you meet someone such as Owens.

Conversation with him is packed with urgency. His body and hands are in constant motion. These days the man, who works in the marketing department of the family heating and air-conditioning business, is selling his most important product -- hope.

"Lance [Armstrong] talked about it in his first book," Owens said. "He talked about 'the obligation of the cured.' I'm not exactly cured, but it's my turn to carry the torch. There's hope. There's a great life after cancer, and I know, because I'm there."

In 1998, Owens was an obsessed triathlete (swimmer, runner, biker). He was 36 years old "and running like I was in my 20s."

He was training for a marathon and, at the completion of a workout, he was feeling, fast, strong, youthful -- until he collapsed in a seizure. In that instant, everything in his life changed. He had a tumor on his brain. A dangerous surgery was performed. The tumor proved inoperable.

"I assumed my life was over," he said.

Radiation, which reduced the tumor's size by 30 percent, gave Owens time to believe life could go on.

Six months after the initial diagnosis, he married.

He and his wife, Barb, lived together for only a month before cancer began to haunt him again. He began collapsing, his short-term memory was disappearing and he was sleeping constantly.

Meds that he was given made all conditions worse. He sought other opinions. It was determined that his immediate problem was epilepsy, not the tumor. A shuffle of medications brought stability.

But there was a resurgence of the cancer in 2002. This time around, after considerable research and conversation, he decided to try a new drug, an oral chemotherapy.

So far, so very good.

Five days after completing the new treatment, he competed in the City of Lakes Loppet, the 35-kilometer Minneapolis cross-country ski race. His time in the event was inconsequential. When he crossed the finish line, he said he felt a sense of pure exuberance he had never before experienced.

"I thought I was dreaming," he said.

Obviously, Owens is no Pollyanna. His cancer still is with him, physically and emotionally.

"Every person is going to have those fears," he said. "But if you dwell on that, you could miss the day."

Days are too precious to be missed. Most days there's a biking trip around the block with his young son, Max. There's often time to be with the most powerful people he's ever met, others with cancer.

Many of those friends and mentors have died, but they taught him life lessons he now teaches: Learn as much as possible about your cancer and live with gusto.

Currently, Owens is pouring himself into training for the eight-day cross-country journey. There were 1,200 applicants for the team, and now that he was selected as one of the 20, he's not about to slow the others down.

He's putting on 250 miles a week in training, which is not extreme compared with his pre-cancer training regimen.

"I've learned to train shorter and smarter," he said.

He and the others also have been receiving advice from Armstrong's coaches on everything from pedaling cadences to nutrition.

Owens already has made a "Today Show" appearance about the trip and has set up a Web page and there is a separate Web site for the overall event, www.tourofhope.org.