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There's no stopping Jim Owens
Edina cyclist conquers cancer; now the country

by Teri Dwyer, Silent Sports Magazine
The following article appeared the September 2004 edition of Silent Sports Magazine shortly before Jim departed for the 2004 Tour of Hope.

Jim Owens does not back down from a challenge. The 42-year-old man from Edina, Minnesota, a former high school and collegiate swimmer and collegiate water polo player, has completed seven Birkies, eight marathons and numerous triathlons, including the famed Alcatraz Triathlon in northern California. This month he will be part of a nine-day, 3,200-mile bicycle tour across the country from California to Washington, D.C.

Jim rode in the 2004 Tour of HopeBut none of these challenges were as tough as the one that started six years ago when he was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. In April 1998, Owens, who is the vice-president of Owens Cos. Inc., a heating and air-conditioning company his father started 47 years ago, was in what he called the best shape of his life. He was training for Grandma's Marathon. But all of the training and planning came to an abrupt halt when he had a seizure after a workout. The next day he was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. "Between the workouts, working and all the other things I was doing, I stressed my body and finally caused that seizure," Owens said. "I was sitting at the edge of a hot tub at the health club; I had just finished a swimming workout. One of my best friends was sitting right next to me. I had no idea what was happening."

The tumor was large about the size of a plum. Owens and his doctor didn't discuss a lot of options. The tumor had to come out. He was rushed into surgery three days later. But the tumor couldn't be removed. Within a month, Owens began radiation. He also began another search, he says. He was left wondering, "Where do I go from here?" After three months of radiation, the tumor had shrunk by 30 percent. He says it left him healthy enough that, shortly after completing radiation, he married his then-girlfriend, Barb. He said she didn't know what she had gotten herself into when she married him. "What we call our 'healthy honeymoon' lasted only three weeks. I started to deteriorate again," Owens said. "I was having seizures. I was sleeping more than half the day. I had significant memory problems."

It was right after Thanksgiving when Owens said he knew something was really wrong, so he sought a second opinion. He found out his tumor wasn't growing, but he had epilepsy (a neurological condition that makes people susceptible to seizures) which was caused by the tumor. Owens took the news in stride. He thought it was relatively good news because the epilepsy was controllable. He stayed at the hospital for two weeks right after the holidays. He changed medications from steroids for the tumor to epilepsy medications. Within a month he stabilized enough to do a cross-country ski race, the Ely Wilderness Trek.

"I had about three years of relative peace," he said. "Then, in 2002, the tumor started growing again. It was dormant. It was always still there but had been inactive. "Thankfully the second time around we had plenty of time to look at all of our options. They were just going to watch it for a while see how fast it was growing, what it was doing. Again, I hadn't had any symptoms. A regular scan during a checkup showed new activity." Owens, his family and his doctors ultimately decided to try a breakthrough chemotherapy treatment that had just become available. In January 2003, he started the regimen. He took a chemotherapy pill for five days in a row. Then he had the next 23 days off. He repeated this cycle for eight months. The chemotherapy was not only effective at stopping and shrinking the tumor, it gave him back an important part of his life: his athletic pursuits.

Owens finished the City of Lakes Loppet on the Saturday after his first five-day treatment. "My goals were very different. That day it was just to finish. I was not looking at time. I was just having a nice comfortable race," Owens said. "I did the same thing three weeks later when I skied the Birkie. I was there to participate. I was not there to win."

Armstrong Foundation Tour

Owens' cancer experience led him to his latest challenge. For nine days this month, he will participate in the Tour of Hope, a bicycle relay ride from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Owens was one of 20 bicyclists chosen from among 1,200 applicants. Bicyclists from across the country applied for the tour through the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "Like many people, when I was going through my treatment I was searching for information, for answers, for hope," Owens said. "Lance provided an example that cancer limits you only if you let it. You can get through it. The Lance Armstrong Foundation is doing more to champion survivorship than any other organization in the world." According to Owens, the goal of the Lance Armstrong Foundation is getting people back into life. It focuses on survivorship, so cancer survivors can be happy, productive members of society again. "Lance is as dedicated to conquering cancer as he is to cycling. He's the real deal. He's in this mind, body and soul," Owens said. "Meet him for one minute and you know that. He's not someone who's just lending his name to a cause." Owens was selected for the tour through a series of interviews and fitness tests. He also says the 20 participants were told they were chosen because their cancer stories were the ones the tour organizers wanted to tell the world.

Owens' cancer story goes back further than six years ago when he was first diagnosed. His sister Catherine was diagnosed with a rare bone tumor when she was just 10 years old. "My parents would not accept the fact that she was going to lose her leg or lose her life," Owens said. "They did research. She started a very aggressive treatment program. I can't even count the amount of surgeries and radiation she had over 18 months. Just five years later she was third in the Minnesota state high school tennis tournament. It's now 30 years later and she's had no recurrence. She's married and has two children." Also, years ago, his mother had a small skin cancer growth removed. Owens credits his mother's knowledge of her risks with getting early intervention and a cure. And finally, Owens' father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Also caught early, his father is now doing fine.

"That's the mission of the Tour of Hope: know your risks and get screened," Owens said. "We're asking people to go to the Tour of Hope Web site and sign a promise. We're asking them to promise themselves to become active participants in their health. We're interested in getting an end to this disease."

The 20 participants have been through an extensive 16-week training program developed by Lance Armstrong's coach. Since last May, they've had regular teleconferences with the coaches and professional tour staff to discuss their progress. "There will be a lot of bicycling and a lot of excitement. I'm sure we'll go through every emotion in the book," said Owens. "The most important thing the 20 of us are doing is raising awareness and inspiring people to become active in their health care and to participate in clinical trials. He said only 5 percent of adults with cancer participate in clinical trials whereas 60 percent of kids participate. "The speed of advancement in children's cancer treatment reflects these numbers. When my parents looked at my sister's diagnosis, there was nothing they wouldn't do to give her a better life. They looked at every option. People aren't always aware that clinical trials are a viable option and often the best option," Owens said.

But more than medicine, clinical trials or athletic pursuits, Owens credits his family with his recovery. "Barb has been glued to my side since the cancer diagnosis. She's been my greatest supporter and partner," Owens said. "At the depth of my deterioration (after the initial cancer diagnosis), at the absolute worst point I've ever been physically in my life, was when we conceived Max. It had to be divine intervention. He's a blessing that turned my life around." He continued, "You can always make up for lost time with your friends, with your wife. But when you miss time with a child, it's not going to come again. I promised I would be there for my son. And I was." Max turned 5 in August. "He's been on cross-country skis for two years," his father said. "We put him in his first race this past year. He's so thrilled that he's racing like his daddy."

Future goals

Owens still has a brain tumor, although it is dormant again. But he also has hope. He says if it recurs, they should be able to treat it again with the oral chemotherapy that was so successful last year. "Right now basically they're saying that there's more hope all the time. There are new advances every day," Owens said. "Before we know it there's going to be something to get rid of it all together." As a long-time athlete, Owens still has goals. "One of my significant lifetime goals is to become a Birch Legger at the Birkie" one of those who have skied more than 20 Birkebeiners, earning them the right to wear a purple Birch Leggings bib. "As long as I can walk, I'm going to ski it." He has 13 more Birkies to go before reaching that goal. He also has a dream of one day competing in an Ironman triathlon. "After you go through what I went through, I've learned a balanced life is very important," Owens said. "Although it's a goal I've had, I'm going to have to carefully decide can I take that much time away from my family to train for it? This year, the training for Tour of Hope is amazing but also time consuming. I've been traveling all over the country and training for 12 weeks. Maybe the Ironman will have to be 10 years from now when my son is ready to train with me." Nothing's impossible, Owens now knows. "At one point my doctor said I would never run, bike, or anything, again. They don't tell me I can't do anything anymore." To find out more about Tour of Hope, go to www.tourofhope.org.

Other Midwestern hopefuls on the tour

The 20 cyclists chosen for Tour of Hope represent 18 states. The following are also from the Midwest.

Sheila McGuirk, 52, Madison, WI
McGuirk is a colon cancer survivor whose treatment involved removal of her entire colon and rectum. Rather than dwelling on her physical challenges, Sheila has embraced life since her experience with cancer and calls herself "one of the lucky ones." She is a competitive cyclist and pursues a year-round athletic program. Sheila is a professor of large animal medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.

Colleen Chapleau, 46, North Liberty, IA
Chapleau is a skin cancer survivor who has supported both of her parents through a cancer diagnosis and successful treatment. She works with patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation as the associate director of the Iowa Marrow Donor Program and Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Colleen has worked extensively to recruit volunteer donors for the bone marrow registry.

Michael Siegel, 44, Wilmette, IL
Siegel is a two-time leukemia survivor who participated in two clinical trials. He was a father of three and his wife was pregnant with twins when he was first diagnosed. Michael's positive experience with cancer research has compelled members of his family with cancer to enroll in clinical trials. His story has served as an inspiration to many in his local cancer community. Michael is an architect with VOA Associates.

Combined years of cycling experience among 20 team members: 150
Types of cancer that team members and their loved ones have fought: 10
Health care professionals on team: 9
Cancer survivors on team: 12
Team members age range: 32-66 years
Total mileage for each team member during the week will be about 800 miles, averaging 18.5 miles per hour.
The Tour of Hope team will ride almost 3,500 miles across America in eight days. In comparison, Tour de France 2004 cyclists ride about 2,088 miles in three weeks. The daily distance to be completed by each team member (maximum of 132 miles per day) is equivalent to one stage of the Tour de France.