Holly Rowe: How Cancer Changed Her Life

The ESPN reporter has faced challenges but found support, and prayers, from unexpected people.

Posted in , Aug 31, 2017

ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe

For the last two years, I’ve had a constant companion, one that’s made me feel embarrassed and scared and vulnerable. Yet it’s also opened me up to people and experiences more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. Cancer. It’s more than a diagnosis, more than a disease. It’s a journey, one that some of you have been on too, though perhaps not as publicly.

Holly Rowe as seen on the cover of the Oct 2017 issue of GuidepostsNot that I set out to go public about desmoplastic melanoma, the rare and aggressive form of skin cancer I’ve been dealing with. I’d already had a tumor in my chest removed. Then my cancer recurred, and in February 2016, I was in the hospital for a second surgery, to remove a tumor under my arm. While I was waiting to go into the OR, I thought maybe I should let the PR person at ESPN know. For 20 years, I’ve been covering college sports from the sidelines, interviewing people, but I’d never been the subject of the story; it’s the athletes and coaches who are. They’re the stars.

I was sitting in bed, wearing one of those horrible hospital gowns, and all these different people came in, asking me to sign forms, to be in a clinical trial, to donate my tumor so they could do research on it (as if I’d want it back). As one person was putting in an IV drip, someone else asked, “Are you Holly Rowe, the sports reporter at ESPN?” “Yes,” I said. “That’s me.” I texted our PR person: “Just in case anybody asks, I’m in the hospital....” (My bosses knew, of course.) Then I was wheeled off to surgery.

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A couple of hours later, I was in the recovery room, groggy from anesthesia. My family was there: my mom, my sisters, my son. They had ESPN on. I glanced at the TV and saw something startling. “Did my name just scroll across the screen?” I asked.

My son couldn’t believe it either.

I sat up in bed. There was something about a football player and then: “Holly Rowe has successful surgery for cancer....” Right there, on the bottom line.

“Oh, my God!” I said. It was both prayer and exclamation.

All along this cancer journey, I’ve been grateful to have my work to distract me. I’m the biggest sports nerd. I even go to games on my day off. So it helped to have a goal of getting back to reporting after surgery, to have something to look forward to that wasn’t another scan or test. But I didn’t advertise what was happening to my body. Now anybody watching ESPN would know.

Almost immediately, the prayers started coming, and they haven’t stopped. I had 244 text messages that one day alone.

Can I tell you about all the people who have sent me notes and cards? Not just players and coaches. Referees too. College football and basketball referees, WNBA referees. Complete strangers have said they’re thinking of me. The offensive line coach at Ole Miss, whom I didn’t know well at the time, walked over before one of their games and said, “Holly, I just want you to know my wife and I are praying for you.” Me, the girl who has always been nuts about sports.

I’m the second of four girls in my family. My dad had to wait a long time before he had a son: My little brother didn’t come along until I was 16. That wasn’t a problem for Dad. He grew up on a sheep farm in a tiny Utah town and played every sport. He was a jockey, he boxed, he wrestled, and (despite being only 5'3") he also played basketball and football.

He made sure his daughters loved sports too—watching as well as playing. Every Saturday, we’d go to the gym and play pickup basketball. Five on five. You had to win to stay on the court. Del Rowe and his four little girls would take on teams of grown men. To this day, I can call any of my sisters after a game on TV and say, “Did you see that big play in the second quarter?” and they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Dad taught us that we could do anything. I think that’s why three out of the four of us sisters have gone into male-dominated professions. When I got my start in sports journalism, I couldn’t believe it when some of the announcers wouldn’t accept stats if they came from women. They didn’t know who raised me.

I love what I do, traveling all over the country, going to game after game, talking to the players and coaches. Cancer took me by surprise. The first time I got diagnosed, I was in New York City, heading to the Emmy Awards—I’d been nominated. I was standing on a street corner when my dermatologist called to tell me that the mole he’d taken off my chest was cancerous. I was shocked but not scared. A quick surgery and I’d be done with it, I figured. It ended up being a big surgery because there was a large tumor under the skin. Still, I didn’t realize how melanoma could spread.

The second diagnosis came nine months later. I’d found a lump under my arm and gone in for a biopsy. When the dermatologist called this time, I was in the car, driving. “I hate to tell you this,” he said, “but you’ve had a recurrence.” I pulled over and cried.

I worked two or three college basketball games before they could get me in for surgery. One was a big matchup—Oklahoma at L.S.U. It was a wild, crazy game, and I did this great interview with star guard Buddy Hield, who led Oklahoma to the win. He put his arm around me and I was thinking, Man, I’m going in for cancer surgery in two days, and here I am, just enjoying life. It was so surreal.

The third time I was diagnosed, I was at the hospital getting a routine scan. I was in the waiting room of the oncology ward. There’s this little screened-off area in the hallway where they take your weight, temperature and blood pressure before you go into the examination room. A woman in her late sixties was sitting there, struggling with the blood pressure cuff. I went to help her, and she broke down crying in my arms. “It’s going to be okay—just stay strong,” I kept repeating. Then I walked into the exam room and the nurse practitioner told me, “You have a new tumor in your lung.”

Cancer creates its own curious bonds. At that moment, I was more upset for the woman in the hallway than for myself.

I’ve found it’s the little things about cancer, the little indignities, that get to me. Like losing my hair. I loved my long blonde curls. First, I noticed more and more hair on the bathroom floor when I got ready in the morning. Then it would just come out in my hands when I was shampooing and rinsing my hair. I woke up one day, and it looked as if a puppy were sleeping on my pillow. All the hair on the back of my head had fallen out.

“Honey, this is so stressful for you—losing your hair in stages,” my mom said. “Let’s go get it all shaved off.” She and I went and had a fun day at the beauty salon.

I got some cute hats and a wig I named Wanda. But can I tell you how miserable it is to wear a wig, even one as nice as Wanda, when you’re running along the sideline at a football game in Texas and it’s 104 degrees and sweat is trickling down the back of your neck and face? So I decided to ditch Wanda and go with a short, spiky cut.

Then there’s the stuff people can’t see. That surgery to remove the tumor under my right arm—when my name scrolled across the bottom of the TV screen—also took out 29 lymph nodes, which left a huge scar, about 14 inches long. I had all these drains coming out of my body, plastic tubes that directed excess fluid into a pouch. Ten days after the surgery, I had to fly to Los Angeles and do interviews for our softball feature. Twenty fabulous teams were taking part. There was no way I was going to miss that.

I wondered what they were going to say at airport security about this bag of liquids hanging around my neck. I did have a note from my doctor to explain it. The funny thing was, TSA didn’t say a word. Didn’t even ask what was under my shirt.

I’m doing something called immunotherapy now. Doctors use medicines to stimulate your own immune system to attack the cancer cells. I’m on treatment number 13, and I go every 21 days to get an infusion. It’s really shrinking the big tumor. The last three scans haven’t shown the little tumors at all. I like to think they’re gone.

The doctors and nurses are great. So are all the prayers. I believe in the power of prayer. It’s the best therapy. And to have people ask for blessings for you—what a humbling feeling that is. Like getting a text from a star like Buddy Hield. “My mom and I are so upset,” he wrote. “We are praying for you.” That’s the most precious gift you can give someone: to pray for them. I’m not used to making myself this vulnerable, to step out for a moment from the sidelines and take center stage. But I’ve seen what comes of it, the help and the healing. Not just for myself but for others.

Not long ago, I was in Kansas covering a basketball game and a 16-year-old came up to me with her parents. She has cancer. She’d been wearing a hat to school because she was embarrassed about her hair loss. Until the day I shaved my head and talked on air about going on TV without hair. That day she went to high school without her hat.

What a reminder that the Lord has his hand in everything, bringing people together so we can help each other. We sat on the side of the basketball court in Lawrence, Kansas, that 16-year-old and I, new friends, drawing strength from each other. It made me so grateful to be at work. To share my cancer journey. To make every day count. 

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