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Wednesday, April 21, 2021  
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A Benefit for the Minnesota Oncology Hematology Foundation
September 15, 2003
Jim Owens Survivor's Testimony
In September 2003, Jim was invited to speak at a fundraising event for the Minnesota Oncology Hematology Foundation (MOHF). The MOHF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the needs of cancer patients. Their mission is to improve the quality of life throughout the cancer experience by providing education, financial support, acts of kindness & caring and community events.


MOHF Swing for the StarsI am honored to share my story with you today. It has been a challenging journey this past five years. But along the way I have had some tremendous care and met some wonderful people that have helped regain my health and wholeness. A number of them are in this room tonight or are part of this family. To them I will always be grateful.

The life of a competitive athlete

I spent a great part of my youth as a competitive athlete. I wasn't happy unless I had a 15-mile run scheduled, had a triathlon, marathon or open water swim on the calendar. While pursuing my education and professional life, I made time for intercollegiate swimming and water polo, to run eight marathons, to swim in from Alcatraz, ski 15 cross country skiing marathons, and compete in a dozen or more races every year.

The End?

Then on April 14, 1998 the world that I knew collapsed. I had just completed a long swimming workout with my team, was sitting in the whirlpool when the left side of my body went numb. I had had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital. The next day I was told I had a brain tumor. I was pretty sure that IF I survived I would be a shell of my former self. So much for that first house I had purchased 9 months earlier. Forget about ever running again, Goodbye red wine. Instantly changed:

  • From Indestructible to Uninsurable
  • From Inexhaustible to Unwakeable
  • From Overly Indulgent to Overly Medicated
  • From Rainmaker to Rainman

Surgery was unsuccessful, but radiation shrunk the tumor by 30%. Two months later I still had the military cut but was very healthy for my wedding. The health honeymoon only lasted about three more weeks and I began to have twitching fingers and toes. It got worse, and the steroids were heaped on me. Before long 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 at rush hour and my leg collapsed. It took everything I had to get to the other side of the street. My wife Barb didn't know what she married.

Max and Daddy at Max's 4th Birthday, August 2003 Around Thanksgiving, when I was at the depth of physical deterioration, a miracle happened - we conceived our son Max. At this time I also 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 to change my medications. Within 2 weeks I was working about 80%, I had lost most of the weight and even entered a short cross-country ski race.

The Journey Back to Health & Wholeness

By the summer my wife and I would joke: 'What brain tumor?' The only reminders were the epilepsy drugs and the very rare twitching or numbness in my arm. Then for the most part I had three very healthy years.

Along with doctors, family and friends, It was Lance Armstrong and a group I found through him called Cyclists Combating Cancer that helped me put my life back together. CCC is an online community of athletes that have or have had cancer. It's a group of determined individuals who are not taking cancer lying down. CCC and Lance instilled in me the belief that cancer limits you only if you let it.

Things changed this past year as my tumor became active again, and I just completed eight months of chemotherapy through Minnesota Oncology. The results have been very positive, and I am currently training for a 100-mile bike ride in Austin, Texas this October.

A New Definition of "Physical Therapy"

Part of what has kept me healthy is this "physical therapy" - training and racing. I am a firm believer in the great medicinal value of physical activity, especially vigorous exercise. I didn't let chemo stop me from competing in two cross-country ski marathons this winter, including the 51 Kilometer American Birkebeiner, the largest and most difficult race in the country. I wore this Swix racing suit in this race, and I asked my fellow chemotherapy patients at Minnesota Oncology to sign it. My hope was and is to inspire someone to keep their dreams, to fight on and to have faith that better days are ahead.

Support, or Lack of

I have had incredible support from family and friends. Equally important I have been blessed with a flexible job, insurance and the resources to handle what could have been a tremendous financial burden. Someone has always been there to lend a hand, to give me a ride, or just to listen as the stress of diagnosis and treatment was thrust upon us. I know how enormous the burden could be if someone didn't have all this, and that is why I am here today to support the Minnesota Oncology Hematology Foundation. They are there to help people that don't have the resources or support structure that I have to cope, to manage financially, to retain their dignity, while facing similar struggles. There are so many people, with so many needs, and it only through our generous support that they are able to deliver their valuable services.

Why The Birkie

I think my family and friends finally understand me, but I am often asked why I undertake such difficult events such as the Birkie or a bike century. I ask myself that sometimes. Perhaps this entry to CCC after the Birkie this year says it best:

"The coldest, loneliest part is your hardest hill. You never know when it will happen. One of those moments hits you unexpectedly. You are somewhere out on the course, seemingly alone even if you are in a sea of people. It is cold. You are tired. And your mind starts to work against you. Why are you out there? What are you doing this for? What do you have to prove? Well, for me, these are the moments of clarity. These moments are why I do these events. They remind me oh, so quickly, that I am doing these things because I can! Because I have been given the gift of a second chance. Because I have friends and acquaintances, fellow survivors, that wish they could be out cranking on their skis, or bike, or on running shoes, but can't right now. Or may never again. Yes I do these crazy things for the exhilaration and accomplishment. But now it's just as much so that I don't ever forget that I am still here, and just how fortunate I am. My current battle with cancer is as difficult as anything I have ever faced, but I will persevere, just like I will get to the finish line today. I am committed to being a survivor, not a victim."