Chaunté Lowe looking on in the women's high jump qualifying round on at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Chaunté Lowe was diagnosed with breast cancer two days after the inspirational runner and cancer warrior Gabriele Grunewald died in mid-June following a 10-year battle.
“It’s like, ‘Oh wow, this is not the baton you want to be handed,’” said Lowe, the 2008 Olympic high jump bronze medalist, “but it’s so important for awareness and continuing research. There are so many people suffering from breast cancer, which I wasn’t paying much attention to before this happened to me."
“Now I’m paying attention.”
Lowe, a 35-year-old mother of three, crossed paths with Grunewald at meets and closely followed her story, including the formation of the Brave Like Gabe foundation. Grunewald had a rare form of cancer that began in her salivary glands and eventually spread to other parts of her body.
“She grabbed all of our hearts,” Lowe said, “as a racer, as a competitor and as a fighter.”
The high jumper has her own mission: an emphasis on early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms are usually not recommended for women under age 40 because the risk of cancer is considered low and the procedure is not as effective on younger women.
“If I would have waited until 40, I would not be here,” Lowe said. “I would not have made my 40th birthday.”
She knows she’ll have a platform to spread that message worldwide if she makes her fifth straight Olympic team and represents the United States at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“No. 1, I’m fighting and competing for my life,” Lowe said. “It’s like training is something that’s familiar to me. It’s something that I understand. It’s something that I can control. It makes me happy. It brings me joy.
“But at the same time, it’s like, ‘If I can get on that next Olympic, team, I want to use that platform to make younger women aware. Check yourself. This can happen to you.’ I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I exercise regularly – these are all the things that they say should prevent something like this from happening. It seems like right now our greatest defense is early detection.”
Worlds Go On Without HerChaunte Lowe speaking during a press conference at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
As the 2019 IAAF World Championships begin later this week in Doha, Qatar, Lowe, an eight-time national outdoor champion, is awaiting the fourth of her six rounds of chemo.
The American record holder at 2.05 meters (6 feet, 8 ¾) had hoped to be on Team USA at Khalifa International Stadium until the cancer diagnosis sent her life hurtling in a new direction.
Rather than competing at the U.S. national championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in late July, Lowe underwent a double mastectomy.
“I was preparing and I was ready to come to USAs, but I had to forgo that and do the surgery instead,” said Lowe, the 2012 world indoor champion who also won a silver medal at the 2005 world outdoor championships and a bronze at the 2010 world indoor champs.
Vashti Cunningham, the 2016 world indoor champion, won the 2019 national title with a jump of 1.96 (6-5), followed by Inika McPherson at 1.94 (6-4 ¼). No one else had reached the world championships standard, although Ty Butts, who jumped 1.92 (6-3 ½), was invited to fill out the world field.
“I was looking at the marks and I would have made that team,” Lowe said. “So, it’s frustrating, but I know that I still have it in me.”
So does Nat Page, who first began coaching Lowe when she competed for Georgia Tech nearly half a lifetime ago, and Nike, her longtime sponsor which has signed her through 2020.
Page thinks Lowe has plenty of time to be ready for Tokyo because of “the way she is physically and her mindset.
“Her determination and confidence just overflows,” the coach said. “Once she gets through the chemo, I think things will go as normal.”
Lowe, who is known for her dance celebrations after clearing a difficult height, hasn’t competed in two years.
After tying for seventh at the national championships in 2017 – “I wouldn’t even call that competing, I was just there” – she stepped away to work as a financial advisor. Lowe needed those markers on her resume.
“As you get older, you really don’t know what season is your last,” said Lowe, who graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in economics and finance and also has a masters degree, “and when your degree is over 10 years old, it kind of looks bad when you’re looking for work.”
She considered retiring, but was playing it by ear, staying in shape, if not “tip-top shape.”
Listening To What Her Body Tells Her
And Lowe was still highly in tune with her body. That’s why she was alarmed a little more than a year ago when she felt a tiny lump in her breast area about the size of half a grain of rice.
“I just knew it was there one week and it wasn’t there the week before,” Lowe said.
She went to the doctor – “You don’t play with lumps,” Lowe said – and attempted to get a mammogram.
“They outright refused me,” she said.
Lowe was told she was too young, that it was probably nothing.
Although it wasn’t normal procedure, she was finally able to convince the lab to let her have the mammogram in August 2018. The doctor who looked at the images told her it was just a lymph node, and that she might want to gain some weight.
“He said, ‘I do not want to see you again for six years,’” Lowe said. “And so, at that time I’m feeling relieved. It’s something that’s a potentially scary situation, but it’s nothing. These are the doctors; they know what they’re talking about.”
Chaunte Lowe competing in the women's high jump final at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 20, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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Meanwhile, Lowe was keeping an eye on the high jump, and it was obvious her rivals were not soaring out of her reach. Partly due to the ban on Russia in the wake of its doping scandal, the event was stagnating. Lowe knew she could still contend for the podium on the national and international level and she was training for her comeback.
Yet that lump didn’t go away. Lowe had a dream that something was terribly wrong with her. She arranged to see a new doctor and felt the lump triple in size while she waited for the appointment.
The new doctor listened to Lowe’s story and said she’d rather be safe than sorry. She sent Lowe back to the same imaging place. Now her scans looked completely different. The lump had grown to 1.8 centimeters, a measurement Lowe knew all too well since that’s the difference between winning and losing in the high jump.
She immediately had a biopsy.
“That’s when they told me that not only is it breast cancer, but it’s actually the most aggressive form of breast cancer,” Lowe said, “and if I hadn’t caught it when I did, it would be way worse.”
She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
If the cancer had been found during Lowe’s initial visit, the treatment would have been a lumpectomy with radiation, but the 11-month delay required the more aggressive treatment of the double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
Thanks to Lowe’s instincts and perseverance, she caught the cancer before it spread to her lymph nodes or other parts of her body, so it was classified as Stage 1.
That was a relief to Lowe and her husband Mario. “He said, ‘We have to have you here for the kids,’” Lowe said. Jasmine is 12, Aurora is 8 and Mario Josiah is 6.
Lowe has chemo once every three weeks. “Usually it hammers me for 5-7 days,” she said. “I feel like I have done the hardest, most grueling workout and then I’m trying to do another workout on top of it.”
Yet Lowe’s in training, building her foundation with plyometrics, anaerobic training and strength training before she starts jumping again.
Lowe wears a cold cap on her head to prevent the chemotherapy drug from going through her hair follicles, which should help her retain about half of her hair.
Still, Lowe said, “I’m really contemplating shaving it in solidarity with the other people who are going through the same thing. But I’m going to wear the cap because I don’t want to be bald forever.”
The chemotherapy should be over by Christmas, then Lowe will undergo surgery to remove the port used to administer the chemo drugs and to replace her breast expanders with silicone implants. Lowe can have any size she wants. “Hey, if it’s going to be a bad situation, why not make the best of it?” she said.
Lowe has also found a sisterhood through her ordeal. She is in contact with Jamaican sprinter Novlene Williams-Mills, who was diagnosed with breast cancer before the London 2012 Games. She won a bronze medal in the 4x400-meter and then had a mastectomy after the Games.
“She’s the reason why I started doing self-exams in the first place and she’s been talking on Instagram with me and helping me out,” Lowe said.
She would like to compete next season in some indoor meets, but figures that may be pushing it. So she’ll target spring meets such as the Drake Relays, “coming out really strong.”
A Long Olympic HistoryMax Siegel and Chaunte Lowe shaking hands on stage at the 2017 Team USA Awards on Nov. 29, 2017 in Westwood, California.
At her first Olympic Games in 2004, Lowe was a college sophomore and missed the final, placing 13th. She was sixth at both the Beijing and London Games – setting the American record in between in 2010.
Lowe went into Rio with the top qualifying mark in the world. The top four jumpers all went 1.97, but Lowe placed a devastating fourth, just off the podium, due to more misses throughout the competition.
Then in late 2016, Lowe got unexpected news. The Beijing doping samples were retested, which is standard procedure, and the third- and fourth-place finishers from Russia and the fifth-place finisher from Ukraine were disqualified.
Following all appeals, in November 2017, Lowe was officially an Olympic bronze medalist, a life-changing event which also takes the pressure off her Tokyo quest.
“It makes me feel like there’s no box left unchecked on my goals list,” said Lowe, who lives in the Orlando area. “Being able to take my medal and go and speak to kids and student athletes has been an amazing turning point in my life. That has brought me way more joy than even getting the medal has.”
Lowe’s message is “perseverance. Don’t give up doing things the right way, pursuing your goals with integrity and finding ways to overcome any obstacle.”
She has certainly had more than her share of obstacles. “I grew up in adversity, challenges with poverty and then finding the right influences,” said Lowe, who slept in the backseat of cars with her mother as a child.
Her resilience has always kept her going, and she has a great support system. Page, who walked Lowe down the aisle at her wedding, said when she was inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“I let them know how much they really mean to me,” said Lowe.
Such prowess as a speaker has prompted her to launch a business with her website, chauntelowespeaks.com, and she also does some preaching.
“At heart, I’m a speaker,” she said.
Lowe wants to tell women to be their own advocate, to listen to their bodies and to get a second opinion if they are not satisfied with what they are told. “You’re not trapped,” she said.
Lowe hopes her words could bring more funding for research, for transportation to appointments or to buy more machines that help people undergoing chemo retain their hair.
“Cancer’s such an ugly thing, and it steals so much from so many people,” she said. “I really have to fight to be here, and even though it sucks and it’s hard and it’s horrible and it’s exhausting, to be honest with you, I cherish every moment of it because I feel like it’s making me a better person.
“It’s giving me more compassion for the millions of people – children, families, women and men – who are going through the same exact thing. If I can have a voice for them, I will.”