When Bowen Holden sat down at her laptop on a recent evening in mid-July, she’d just had her first good day after nearly a month of very bad ones. In late June, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had filled much of the time since imagining a future she could miss.
“You go to that place initially, like, ‘Holy crap, I’m gonna miss my daughters’ weddings, I’m not gonna send [my kids] off to college and high school,” said Bowen, 40, the former head coach at Boston College and an All American goalie at Georgetown. “Basically, I’m going to die.
“And then you snap out of it.”
As word spread across the Georgetown, Boston College and the greater lacrosse communities, Holden started to hear from teammates, coaches and others. Then on July 17, the messages came in a flood, filling her phone, inbox and mailbox with notes of support.
One teammate said she was in Indiana for the day and had lit a candle for Holden at the grotto at Notre Dame. When she arrived home from the doctor and checked her mailbox, she found a bracelet engraved with “Conquer,” “Hoya Strong” and “40,” her jersey number at Georgetown.
By the end of the day, she dubbed the outpouring Teammate Wednesday.
“It’s one thing to hear from [teammates and friends] over time, but it was just on one day, all at once,” Bowen said. “Writing has always been therapeutic for me, and I just sat down and wrote.”
Holden wrote for close to a page, then posted the letter to social media.
“To every young athlete,” the letter begins, “Follow your dreams. Find your passion. Surround yourself with those who want to do the same.”
Holden wrote about playing in the 2001 NCAA championship game, in a “jersey [with] blood sweat and tears all over it, not just mine but those of my teammates.”
She wrote about being a coach, ”building relationships and losing relationships… building teams and coaching athletes. And I’ve been fired from doing so. Life is a rollercoaster, and how you weather the storms and rise from the lows matters more and tells the world more about who you are than any championship.”
And she wrote about facing the unknown, that “the entire ride is likely preparing you for a journey you cannot fathom.”
Inspired by teammates who, nearly 20+ yrs later prove 2 b guiding lights in the biggest game of my life, I share an open letter they inspired me 2 write in hopes it resonates w/ many young athletes following their dreams #conquercancer #breastcancer #hoyastrong #LSWarriorpride pic.twitter.com/ywzeVT8vwN
— Bowen Holden (@bowenholden40) July 19, 2019
One thing Holden never fathomed was a breast cancer diagnosis at age 40. Though both her mother and grandmother have faced the disease, they were both over 70 when diagnosed and, regardless, she said, the family did not carry genes traditionally associated with a higher risk.
“It was a total shock,” she said.
After a series of late-June tests, doctors told Bowen she had developed tumors on both sides of her body, including in nearby lymph nodes, and on July 12 she underwent surgery for a bilateral mastectomy and to remove the affected lymph nodes.
Holden’s prognosis is good. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer detected before it spreads beyond breast tissue is very rarely fatal. But even in cases like Bowen’s, caught after advancing only to nearby lymph nodes, so-called survival rates are between 85 and 90 percent. (Those rates are a statistical measure of outcomes of similar cases after five years, though the Cancer Society cautions that they are far from definitive.) Doctors have told Bowen her case fits in that range.
“It sucks,” Holden said. “But you realize, ‘OK, I have breast cancer, but I’m going to be OK.’”
Holden said several women who have faced breast cancer have reached out to her, including friends from Georgetown and Duke coach Kerstin Kimel, who coached the Blue Devils in 2017 while undergoing treatment. Holden said she and Kimel quickly realized they had similar diagnoses.
Then two days after writing her letter for social media, she got a visit from her coach at Georgetown, Kim Simons Tortolani.
“As soon as I heard, I started thinking, ‘What could I do or what were things that would give her strength?’” said Simons Tortolani, who coached the Hoyas from 1996-2004 and had Holden on her staff to coach the U.S. U19 team in Scotland in 2015.
First, Simons Tortolani said, she “rallied the troops,” coordinating with Holden’s former teammates. But that wasn’t enough.
“I knew I needed to see her,” she added. “When something like this happens to someone like that in your life, you need to put your hands on them and hug them.”
“Every great coach does know when it’s time to show up, when it’s time to be there,” Holden said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BOWEN HOLDEN
When her old coach arrived at Holden’s home in Fayston, Vt., she surprised her former goalie with a video of 20 former Hoyas, mostly Holden’s teammates. Each had recorded quick words of encouragement and support, which 2003 All-American Michi Ellers compiled into a 15-minute video.
It had only been two days since Holden put her message of hope into the world, but her teammates were already sending one back.
“We watched with my girls (Cannon, 12, and McClaine, 10) in the room, too,” Holden said. “We didn’t really know how long it was and [by the second message], I was just bawling. Kim, too. We were both in full-on tears. It was pretty powerful.”
Simons Tortolani said that several of the former Hoyas used their video to recall Holden tearing her ACL as a senior and playing the full year anyway, leading the team to the national final.
“The perspective is much different, but it was life-shattering at the time,” Simons Tortolani said. “That’s how we feel about this. Everyone’s response has been, ‘Bowen will overcome this.’”
Messages of support have kept coming, including a blanket from her 2009 and 2010 Boston College classes embroidered with the word, “Conquer.”
“This blanket will certainly be close to me for the duration,” Holden said. “I hear the chemo treatment rooms are pretty cold.”
Holden said she had her final post-surgery exams in late-July and will undergo chemotherapy starting in mid-August into October, followed by radiation. A lifelong equestrian, she said she rode for the first time after her final post-surgery check-up.
During the worst month of her life, Holden said, she has had some of her most meaningful days, an idea she wanted to capture in her letter.
“Cherish your teammates,” she wrote. “Live in the moment. Face each game of life with the athlete deep within you. And conquer, always conquer, life’s biggest roller coasters with your teammates in your heart.”
“I’m starting to feel like I’m lucky to have gotten cancer or something weird,” Holden said. “You would never wish it on anyone, and at the same time, you wish everybody could feel this much support.”
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