The second diagnosis came just days before Christmas 2010, almost exactly a decade after the first time Stephanie Bowen was told she had cancer. She thought back to ten years earlier, when she found out that the itchy lump on her left arm was melanoma Stage I.
She’d been worried back then, her mind rushing to her toddler, Allison, and all the milestones she had ahead of her, all the moments meant to be shared between mother and daughter.
So, when the second diagnosis came — this time Stage IV — Bowen felt the crush of sadness followed by an intense determination.
“This was my life and so I just started fighting,” said Bowen, now 50 and living in Groveland, California. “I wanted to be there for my daughter. When that’s your motivator, you dig deep.”
The official diagnosis took months and a visit to a specialist to receive. A mammogram in October was inconclusive so Bowen underwent an ultrasound and CAT scan to try to learn more about the lump in her armpit. A needle biopsy around Thanksgiving also proved inconclusive. By the time she got an appointment at the John Wayne Cancer Center on December 22, her tumor had grown to 16 centimeters, or the size of a large grapefruit.
“I had to really advocate for myself,” Bowen said, explaining that she saw one oncologist who gave her few answers and told her to go home and get her affairs in order. “I thought ‘No way, I’m not going to just take this lying down.’”
At the John Wayne Cancer Center, Bowen underwent another MRI and bloodwork and was scheduled for surgery to remove the tumor.
Then came more devastating news: Tests showed that the cancer had spread into her lungs. Surgery wasn’t an option.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Bowen said. Even now, 10 years after that phone call, her voice falters when she talks about finding out she was Stage IV. “I worried that maybe it was my last Christmas.”
Still, Bowen was resolved: Her goal was to survive for her family, for her daughter. At 13, Allison was just starting to navigate the careful equilibrium of reaching for her mom and finding her own independence.
Fighting for life
Through a referral from her doctor at the John Wayne Cancer Center, Bowen went to The Melanoma Center at The Angeles Clinic & Research Institute in Los Angeles, where a team of specialists drew up a treatment plan. Bowen credits the specialists for sharing and encouraging her spirit of tenacity.
But receiving treatment required Bowen to leave her home in California’s High Sierras and travel more than 380 miles to a hospital in Santa Monica. Her husband and daughter stayed behind.
“I couldn’t be there with Allison,” Bowen said. “She was left to Google ‘melanoma’ at home by herself. It was horrible.”
Bowen started treatment in January 2011. The tumor in her armpit had wrapped around her brachial plexus nerve, causing extreme pain and making it difficult to sleep.
Over the next five months, she underwent five rounds of biochemotherapy, which combines chemotherapy with immunological therapy. In her words, it’s a brutal “supersized chemo.”
Each cycle involved five days in the hospital. Bowen would then go to a hotel room where her sister and mother would care for her as she struggled with extreme nausea and weakness.
Bowen lost her hair and about 60 pounds. She often shook uncontrollably – a side effect of one of the drugs.
“I was so, so sick,” she said. “After four cycles, I wasn’t sure if I could do another one.”
To help keep her sister’s spirits up, Bowen’s twin would perform goofy dances in the hospital’s chapel, which was equipped with a camera that streamed the footage into Bowen’s room. It brought a smile every time.
“We kept up a sense of humor through it all,” she said.
Bowen’s cancer responded to the treatments and by spring of 2011, doctors found No Evidence of Disease (NED). She began dreaming of all the things she’d do when she regained her strength. She thought about traveling, hiking and singing along at Dave Matthews concerts. She let herself imagine watching her daughter walk across the stage for high school graduation or down the aisle at her wedding.
Her weight and her strength came back with time, but Bowen struggled with “chemo brain,” even as she returned to teaching third grade. The answers to elementary math problems sometimes proved elusive and she noticed glitches with her memory. But that has improved with time.
Bowen admits the first few years after treatment remained difficult even as she returned to her life and her hobbies.
“I think I was still just kind of pissed,” she said. “It was hard, it was painful, and I hated that my family had to go through it.”
A daughter’s experience
Bowen’s daughter Allison also struggled with a deep depression in those first years after her mother’s cancer. She was upset and angry, faced with navigating the emotions of adolescence alongside the reality of almost losing her mother.
“I was her mom, and I couldn’t physically be there when she needed me the most,” Bowen said.
But Bowen was able to be there for that graduation. She was able to watch her daughter grow into an adult who now advocates for melanoma awareness and suicide prevention.
And she was able to join Allison for a trip to Costa Rica last year. Together, mother and daughter saw sloths and soaked in hot springs. They explored rainforests and sipped on fruity cocktails.
“It was incredible to get to do that with her,” Bowen said. “She’s a great travel companion.”
Bowen also enjoys hiking and backpacking in Yosemite National Park. She’s also taken up painting – mostly mountainscapes and angels.
It’s cliché but you just have to do the things you like to do,” she said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to just get out there and do it.”
It was that attitude, paired with a desire to raise awareness, that inspired Bowen to help coordinate AIM walks and fun runs in Laguna Niguel and Sonora, California.
She also has AIM t-shirts and magnets on her car and is often stopped by someone with questions or a survivor story of their own. Bowen has even written a book called “My Journey with Melanoma,” which is available on Amazon.
“I think about the people who were resources for me, and I am so glad that I can sometimes be that person for others with melanoma,” she said. “If sharing my story gives someone hope, that’s what I want to do.”
Bowen still thinks about the potential for a recurrence and said she’s had a cancer scare nearly every year since her treatment. It makes her all the more thankful for the support network she has, made up of friends, family and doctors who encouraged her stubborn, fighting spirit when cancer threatened to diminish it.
The indignation she once felt about her cancer journey has been replaced with immense gratitude: for Allison; for Chris, her husband of 28 years; for her medical team; and for those working to raise money and support melanoma awareness and research.
And sometimes, she said, “It’s as simple as being grateful that the trees are changing colors and happy that I get to be here to see it.”