The scariest part was not that the doctor thought she was too young and too fit for the lump to be breast cancer. It was that he told her she didn’t need to come back to have it checked for six years. That would have been a death sentence.
“I shudder thinking, ‘what if I would not have went for that second appointment?’” four-time Olympian high jumper Chaunte Lowe told Yahoo Sports.
At 34 years old, Lowe noticed a tiny lump in her breast while doing a self-examination. The doctor waved it off, seemingly unconcerned, and the mother of three went back to the daily rigors of life. A year later in the summer of 2019, the lump growing, she visited a different doctor. She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
Now cancer-free and back to training for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, she’s focused on sharing her own story as inspiration. The eight-time outdoor national champion has partnered on Cancer Screen Week, which started Monday, alongside the American Cancer Society, Genentech, Rally Health and Stand Up To Cancer. Ensuring all men and women screen for the most common type of cancers is even more imperative this year during the COVID-19 pandemic when an estimated two-thirds of of Americans have delayed or skipped them.
“I think back to the fact that if it were the middle of a pandemic, I don’t think I would have initially went back for the second appointment,” said Lowe, who turns 37 next month. “That second appointment was so vital.”
Breast cancer survivor Lowe puts platform to use
A positive personality by nature, Lowe was so sure it wasn’t cancer that she and her husband, Mario, brought their three children (now ages 7, 9 and 13) with them to the second doctor’s appointment. They stayed in the car watching movies, and when Mario was asked to come into the office himself, Lowe realized the seriousness.
Lowe underwent a double mastectomy in July 2019 when she should have competed in the U.S. national championships, and had her fourth of six rounds of chemotherapy around the time of the IAAF World Championships.
“For me, the ultimate goal and prize was being declared cancer-free and living. This was the gold medal,” Lowe said, emphasizing the point with her hands high and a characteristic laugh. “There was no silver, there was no bronze. That was the goal. And I had to put myself in the best position for it.”
She used her athletic mindset to guide her through the recovery and began training upon finding out exercise was beneficial during chemo. Knowing that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime — and millions others will be diagnosed with other cancers — prompted her to combine another Olympic pursuit with awareness work.
“I felt like it was my job to train for the Olympics through chemotherapy, through mastectomy, through COVID — which I didn’t know was going to be a thing — and really work to get that message out there because I know it will save lives,” she said.
Cancer doesn’t stop for COVID-19
Mammograms aren’t typically recommended for women under 40 years old since the risk of cancer is considered low. Screenings are advised at least every other year for those between 40 and 74. But anyone who notices a mass in their breast should have it checked.
“It’s very scary to go in and want to find out if you have any type of cancer,” Lowe said. “But it could give you more options the earlier that you detect it.”
Around two-thirds of Americans who should be getting screened for cancer have skipped appointments during the pandemic. The socioeconomic disparities already present have gotten worse, and fewer lower-income citizens are screened.
“[The] severity of both COVID illness and the COVID recession have been disproportionately devastating among communities of color, and these issues have magnified the pre-existing cancer screening disparities,” Dr. Lisa Newman, chief of breast surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports.
Newman said oncologists around the country have gotten creative in keeping things safe at the office. Lowe said it might be nerve-wracking to go to appointments alone and experience less face-to-face time with doctors. It’s crucial to find a community or organization to lean on for information and support. Cancer Screen Week’s website goes over what to expect and has resources to find doctors even without insurance.
Lowe is walking proof that self-screening can be vital and catching cancer early is life-saving. As an athlete, she was hyper-aware of her body and recommends everyone begin to do the same. After Googling “Olympic athlete with cancer” she joined a “Feel it on the First” social media campaign seen on cross-country skier Kikkan Randall’s pages.
Tokyo Olympics: Lowe on track for high jump
Chemotherapy was rough on Lowe’s body and she doesn’t think she can compete for another five years like she had planned before treatments. The American record-holder in the high jump can’t go out to a public space to train since she’s immunocompromised so her sponsors stepped up and made her a spot to jump in her backyard. The jumping is “elementary,” she said, but she’s working hard.
Her initial goal is to make the the U.S. national team for the Olympics and later participate in the first track and field world championships on U.S. soil in 2022. Competing and winning gold would be great.
“But they're secondary to getting in front of that microphone,” Lowe said. “Getting the opportunity to talk, talk to my fellow athletes, talk to everyone listening [about] the importance of understanding your risk, doing what it takes to detect if you see any changes or abnormalities. And really finding ways to support organizations that are in the trenches fighting toward ending this horrible disease that we call a cancer for people all around the world.”
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