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CANCER SURVIVOR HAS FOUND THE PATIENCE,
PERSISTENCE TO REMAIN AN ATHLETE

by Rhoda Fukushima, Saint Paul Pioneer Press
The following article appeared in the February 17, 2003 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press a few days before Jim competed in his sixth American Birkebeiner Ski Race in Hayward, Wisconsin.

This weekend, Jim Owens plans to compete in the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. An avid athlete, Owens just finished treatment for a brain tumor first diagnosed in 1998. Since then, Owens, now 40, of Edina, has had surgery, returned to work, gotten married, had a son, joined an online support group of cancer survivors and ridden with Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong for charity. Last year, the tumor began to change, and he needed chemotherapy. Owens timed the treatment so he could race the Birkie. His goal is to do 20 Birkies -- and an Ironman triathlon someday.

Barb and Jim Owens"I was diagnosed April 14, 1998. I had surgery two days later. They opened a 3-inch-by-3-inch square on my head. [The tumor] was wrapped around my motor strip. They took three samples. It was a grade II oligodendroglioma. It's rare. It's slow-growing. Most likely, it's a genetic defect.

"Once I got through the surgery, I felt like I could deal with anything. Someone gave me a quote of Lance Armstrong: 'I take nothing for granted now. I only have good days and great days.'

"I had radiation for eight weeks. I finished my last radiation the second week in July. I got married on Aug. 29, 1998. "Things went great for three weeks. I had just finished up another workout when I noticed one of my toes was twitching. The physical therapist thought it was neurological. [The doctors] starting piling on heavier doses of steroids, thinking the tumor was acting up.

"[My wife] Barb didn't know what she married. I was sleeping 14 hours a day. I was belligerent. My short-term memory was terrible. I put on 35 pounds. I was having seizures daily. Once, I was walking across Hennepin Avenue and my leg collapsed. It took everything I had to get to the other side of the street.

Jim with son Max"At the absolute low point, we got a miracle. Around November 1998, Max was conceived.

"I got a second opinion. The doctor said the tumor was not growing. The problem was epilepsy caused by the radiation. In January 1999, I was in the hospital for two weeks. They changed my medications.

"Within two weeks of being discharged from the hospital, I'd lost almost all my (extra) weight. I was back to work 95 percent.

"We'd say, 'What brain tumor?' The only reminders were the drugs. I was just dealing with the occasional seizure.

Mile 60, Ride for the Roses 2002"I discovered the Lance Armstrong Foundation and a group called Cyclists Combatting Cancer (www.ridetolive.org). It is a group of survivors. I've become good friends with a number of people in that group.

"I did [Armstrong's charity] Ride for the Roses. I raised $22,000. The morning of the ride -- I'd ridden 25 miles with Lance the day before -- I thought I'd break off and do 60 miles. At about 20 miles into the ride, I decided I would go for 100 miles with a few members of my group. They pulled me along. Our time on the bike was 5:45. I was really dragging at the end, but I was determined to get through.

"In April 2002, I started getting more seizures. In June, I got my first bad MRI scan. The tumor was definitely growing. Plus, there is an area that is changing. I started oral chemo at the end of last month [January 2003].

"My disease right now is a lifelong disease. Every time I go through a round of something, it's beating it back. I'm just praying that one of these new directions will find a way to take care of it for good.

"I've had to learn to be able to sit back, listen to my body and let myself rest. Before, I would get so worked up over things. Now, if something doesn't go my way, 'I'll say, 'That's inconvenient. It's not the end of the world.'

"Part of it comes with being a dad. It takes more patience to be a dad than to deal with a brain tumor.

"Now, I train shorter and smarter. I have a much more balanced life.

"I haven't found myself in a long time asking, 'Why me?' Without the brain tumor, I might not have such an appreciation for everything that's happened in my life.

"I'm trying to make a difference and be a survivor, not a victim."

Have you turned the corner toward good health? If so, we want to hear your story. Please e-mail your ideas to rgfukushima@pioneerpress.com, call Rhoda Fukushima at (651) 228-5444, or mail them to Turning Point, c/o Rhoda Fukushima, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55101.