In Their Own Words: Holly Rowe
The V Foundation for Cancer Research is successful thanks to the contributions of many – donors, corporate partners, our incredible Board and Scientific Advisory Committee and the amazing researchers to whom we award grants. With “In Their Own Words,” we sit down with key members of our team to learn more about their commitment to the V Foundation and their personal desire to put an end to cancer. In this edition, we chat with ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe about her personal cancer journey.
The V Foundation: Take us back to when you were first diagnosed in 2015. How did you first notice something was wrong, and how did you react to the news?
Holly Rowe: I had a spot on my chest that I had previously had biopsied that doctors had said was fine. I remember I was hosting an event at Ole Miss, and with the dress I was wearing, I could notice that where they had biopsied there was kind of a lump under my skin, and I hadn’t really noticed it before. I thought it was weird and figured I would go get it checked, since although the biopsy had said everything was fine, it seemed like this was growing. So, I went back to get a second biopsy, and I remember when I got the diagnosis, I was walking down the street in New York City and got the call that it had come back as a rare form of melanoma called desmoplastic melanoma. I stopped on a street corner, just shocked. I walked back to my hotel, just kind of numb.
TVF: In the summer of 2016, you found out that the cancer had spread to your lungs. Walk us through how difficult that was for you.
HR: I hadn’t been feeling well, so I went in for another CT scan, and they told me it had spread to my lungs. After that second diagnosis, when things had gotten more serious, my good friend Doris Burke said, “Have you thought about contacting the V Foundation?” I hadn’t because, I don’t know, it just hadn’t occurred to me. Three days later, I had an appointment with the top melanoma specialist in the country, Dr. Antoni Ribas. The V Foundation had actually funded some of his clinical trials, so I was very grateful because getting in with him and getting on that clinical trial is what helped me recover. For more than two years, I was doing Keytruda (pembrolizumab) infusions every 21 days. That has saved my life. I can’t over state that enough. I had one big tumor and three small tumors in my lung, and those are all unable to be seen now on a CT scan. I just can’t say enough how grateful I am to the V Foundation. If they hadn’t paired me with the right doctor at the right time, I’m not sure if I’d be here.
TVF: During this process, your cancer journey became public. How odd was that for you, someone who is used to covering the news versus being part of the news?
HR: It never occurred to me that it would be public or anyone outside of my family and friends would care. I remember when someone with ESPN asked me what I wanted them to tell people when I started missing games, I said, “No one is going to notice when I start missing games!” I never considered it until the day of my big surgery, when a couple of the people in the hospital said, “Oh, are you Holly Rowe from ESPN?” So, I thought maybe I should just tell someone from ESPN PR. So, just in my hospital gown, I texted a little paragraph that just said, “Hey, if anyone asks, I’m going in for surgery today.” I was sort of treating it like no big deal, and I hadn’t told that many people.
So I go in for surgery, I wake up, and I ask my son to put on an Iowa State men’s basketball game on the TV in my hospital room. I was still pretty groggy, and I’m watching this game, and I see across the bottom line, “Holly Rowe undergoes successful surgery.” I was like, “Oh, I must still be on my drugs.” So I ask my son, “Is that my name up there?” When I turned my cell phone back on, I think I had 1,000 messages or something. I never wanted it to be public, but it happened for the right reasons. I can’t even tell you the amount of flowers and cupcakes and cookies and things sent to my home. It was an amazing outpouring of love and support.
TVF: When you started to lose your hair during treatment, you took a video of you shaving your head and posted it to social media. How has social media played a role in your cancer journey?
HR: Social media has actually been a really powerful, helpful tool during all of this in a couple of different ways. So, my hair had been falling out in clumps and handfuls, and it was really stressful. My mom finally told me, you just need to shave your head, or you’re going to die a small death every day. It was really hard because I felt like that was the first time I looked sick. When you go bald and lose your hair, you look sick, and people know. So, my sister, April, suggested we publicize that, because there’s a lot of women going through this and maybe that would help them also. So, we took a video of it and posted it on Facebook, and I got so many responses from women going through the same thing.
It was so helpful getting tips about things like wearing compression sleeves for the lymph damages in my arms. People taught me about wigs. I have made friends from absolute strangers on social media. I actually got to meet a woman in Lubbock, Tex., who had melanoma, and we had talked through Facebook. I ended up meeting her when I went to work a Texas Tech basketball game, and I went and spoke at one of her events for women’s health. It’s just crazy how total strangers can become an amazing support system.
So now, I’m trying to do the same thing for other people. When I get messages and someone says, “My friend was just diagnosed. Will you call them or text them?”, I do the best I can to uplift these other strangers because I know how important that was to me. Having this army of strangers showing me love and kindness was amazing, and I can’t tell you how many strangers walked up to me on the street and just said we are praying for you and we love you. That is an honor and humbling.
TVF: What advice do you give to someone if they’ve just been diagnosed?
HR: I think the most important advice I give is to take everything more seriously than you may think you need to. A lot of times early on for me, doctors would give me options, and I would always choose the path of least resistance because I wanted to keep working. I look back on that now and realize I was a crazy person. My work is important to me, and still having joy in your life keeps you going, but I should have been more aggressive in my treatment selection right out of the gate. When you get a choice to be aggressive, take that choice. I don’t say that to scare people; I just didn’t take it seriously enough, and I regret that.
TVF: How important has it been for you to work at a place like ESPN that has so strongly supported the V Foundation and cancer research?
HR: I had always supported the V Foundation and ESPN because I loved Coach Valvano. I was watching the National Championship game when they upset Houston and was a huge fan of that whole Cinderella story. So watching Coach Valvano get sick and deteriorate, I was touched by him personally. It never occurred to me that the Foundation would help me. It went from being a part of ESPN, where of course I’m aware of the V Foundation, of course I’ll support them and do everything I can, to how do I make a bigger impact, because they have saved my life, so they could save someone else’s. I want to be a part of that. I’m very passionate about it, and I want to give back. I want to shout it from the mountain tops. If they saved my life, they are saving other lives, and that’s the most important thing we can do. So, if I have to keep reliving my dark period and my difficult days, I’ll do that and continue to do that to help others.
TVF: What does Victory Over Cancer® mean to you?
HR: Victory over cancer means another day with my son, enjoying our lives … another day with my family and friends. It means another day for me to live and enjoy my life.