The Daily Telegraph

‘Finding out I had cancer shook me to my core’

Four-time Olympian Chaunte Lowe tells Oliver Brown how her athlete’s intuition to seek a second medical opinion probably saved her life


‘Facilities are closed and there’s a lack of equipment. We have milk jugs filled with water, or I pick up the kids as weights’ ‘Losing my hair felt like I was losing a huge part of my identity. I thought I looked like a thumb. But my kids said I was beautiful’

“It was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever experience­d,” reflects Chaunte Lowe, a four-time Olympian who had spent months being assured by her doctor that a tiny lump on her breast, no larger than a grain of rice, was benign. “The shock, the horror of hearing those words, ‘It’s cancer,’ shook me to my core. Even thinking about it now, my blood runs cold.”

This was supposed to have been a week for the 36-year-old Lowe, 18 months removed from a diagnosis that she feared would be a death sentence, to impart her story of survival to the world. All through a chemothera­py regime that challenged not just her powers of endurance but also her self-worth and body image, she had targeted Tokyo 2020 as a cathartic end point of her ordeal, where her involvemen­t in a fifth straight Olympic high jump competitio­n would bring proof that she had prevailed.

Instead, courtesy of Covid-19, her environmen­t since March has been circumscri­bed largely by the borders of her Atlanta garden. As a consequenc­e of her treatment for triple negative breast cancer, among the most aggressive forms of the disease, she has had little choice but to shield scrupulous­ly. With coronaviru­s infection rates still surging in Georgia, her options for training, let alone competing, have all but vanished.

“I have been extremely cautious,” says Lowe, the American record-holder in high jump. “Every track facility has been closed. I considered going on a track at one point, only to see others escorted off it by police. Gyms have stayed shut. On top of that there’s a shortage of at-home work equipment – you can’t even order it. So, we have a lot of milk jugs filled with water around the house. Either that or I pick up the kids as weights.”

As part of her grand designs this summer, she had hoped that her final Games in Japan would underscore not just her own resilience, but also the significan­ce of early breast cancer detection. Mammograms are not typically recommende­d in the US for women under 40, and it was only Lowe’s persistenc­e in seeking a second medical opinion, a trait borne of an athlete’s sensitivit­y to the subtlest changes in her body, that heightened her chances to be here at all. “Even if it was dangerous for me,” she argues, “I still would have done everything I could to be in Tokyo.”

What is so striking about Lowe is her impervious­ness to any bitterness or rancour. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, she had initially finished sixth in the high jump final, only for three athletes placed above her to be disqualifi­ed for failed drugs tests. It would take until 2016 for her to be awarded the bronze that was her due, and yet she continues to describe Russia’s Anna Chicherova, wrongly credited with the medal for eight years, as a “beautiful person – a lot of things needed to go terribly wrong for her to reach the decision she did”.

There is no condemnati­on, either, of the doctor who misdiagnos­ed her in 2018. “He confidentl­y said, ‘It’s not cancer, it’s a lymph node,’ she recalls. “What I knew about lymph nodes is that if you have an infection, they swell up, before usually shrinking back down. But I would self-examine regularly and it wasn’t going away. Then the lump started getting bigger. I had no infection in my body, I had taken detoxing herbs, I was going to the sauna, doing extra cardio – nothing worked. Even to receive my initial scan, I had to lie to the doctor, because he wouldn’t give it to me. I had to be very convincing, because they kept telling me I was too young.”

When a biopsy confirmed the lump was cancerous, Lowe confronted not just the sabotaging of her athletic ambitions but the possibilit­y of leaving three children under 12, Jasmine, Aurora and Mario, without a mother. Somehow, her background in economics, in which she had earned a master’s degree from Georgia Tech, helped her to screen out a maelstrom of emotion and deal only in cold reality. “I thought, ‘OK, what do the statistics say will put you in the best situation to survive?’” she remembers. “Everything that had the highest probabilit­y of success was what I did. That’s my nature. I’m all about analysing the numbers.” A double mastectomy ensued, then breast reconstruc­tion. “I had expanders put in, like place-holders, so that it wouldn’t look too crazy after the surgery,” she explains. “The plan was to have them removed immediatel­y after the Olympics. But we have postponed the surgery due to Covid, as the hospital isn’t the greatest place to be. We don’t know when the operation’s going to be, and that’s a huge concern.”

The sickness induced by the chemothera­py was acute. On her bleakest days, Lowe would collapse in tears attempting the lightest training, finding that even a few steps with a walking frame exhausted her as much as an all-out 400-metre run. Any exertion left her muscles drenched in lactic acid and her tendons excruciati­ngly tight. And yet perhaps the most enduring effect of the experience was that it reshaped her notions of physical beauty.

“When I started losing my hair, that was probably the biggest thing,” she says. “I had purposely been growing my hair long for nine years. I just loved it. So, when it began falling out, I felt like I was losing such a huge part of my identity. My eyebrows fell out, then my eyelashes. ‘Oh God,’ I said. ‘I look like a thumb.’ My kids told me that I looked beautiful without my hair. They filled me up. They have an unconditio­nal love for me.”

For all that she felt like the subject of a gruelling scientific experiment, Lowe discovered fresh ways of restoring the aesthetic attributes, not to mention the self-esteem, that the treatment had taken away. “I had always loved the authentic, natural look. But I had lost so much. The face that I saw in the mirror, I didn’t like any longer. So, I went to Walgreens pharmacy and bought the fake lashes. I saw me again, and I had greater understand­ing for women who do choose to wear a lot of make-up. It was huge for my self-confidence.”

Lowe knew severe poverty as a child growing up on the eastern fringes of Los Angeles, often finding herself sleeping alongside her mother in the back seat of a car. Ever since, whether through her feats in high jump, or her stubborn commitment to reach one last Games, she has shown an uncommon depth of resolve. “It’s funny. When I went to live with my grandmothe­r, she made me deliver a sermon in Sunday school. The topic? Perseveran­ce. The message I had to convey was that the race is not given to the quick, but to the one who endures to the end.”

It is a credo she trusts could yet propel her to Tokyo, where the rearranged Olympics will be staged in 12 months’ time. Given the daunting odds she faced to qualify at US trials this year, a one-year delay promises to work in her favour. By far the greater incentive, though, is that a postponed Games would signify the ultimate fulfilment of her quest. “I hope that it can mark a closing of the Covid-19 chapter,” Lowe says. “If we are able to be together, then it would mean dramatic improvemen­ts in testing, treatment and vaccinatio­n. We are going to heal together, and I want to be a part of that.”

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