Racing is on indefinite hold for UnitedHealthcare cyclist Jackie Crowell, who in October was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment at home in Georgia following surgery to remove a tumor.
Doctors at WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Georgia, operated on Crowell in early October to remove the brain tumor, which was causing temporary paralysis to the right side of her body. Symptoms first appeared while Crowell was pursuing her Olympic dreams with USA Cycling's team pursuit program in Colorado Springs.
“We came back from a long ride, a long road ride, and I had some twitching,” Crowell, 25, recently told Cyclingnews. “Fortunately, Cari Higgins was right there with me, and she called the medics. I've known Cari for a while – she's actually my trade team teammate on UnitedHealthcare – so we're very close. I thought it was MS, actually, because of the twitching.”
Crowell immediately returned home to Georgia for an MRI that discovered the tumor. She was driving home after learning the news when the lesion began to hemorrhage, affecting mobility on her right side until doctors removed the tumor three days later.
“Paralyzed is probably not the right technical term, because I had a little bit of movement,” Crowell said. “But I was basically paralyzed on my right side from the neck down until they took the tumor out.”
Doctors diagnosed the stage 4 cancer after successfully removing the tumor, changing Crowell's immediate plans from fighting for an Olympic spot to settling in for a much different battle.
“Honestly, the most surreal part is when a day goes by and it's completely normal,” she said. “And then I have to take a step back and say, 'Whoa.' My life is no longer completely normal, but I feel fine. It feels like it's completely normal. I mean I just did a strength workout. It's just so odd, because I'm not training for the Olympics anymore, I'm training for my life.”
The five-time US amateur national champion, who won her first stars-and-stripes jersey in the Junior 13-14 individual time trial in 2003, is being treated with chemotherapy and radiation by doctors at the Robert Preston Tisch Brain Tumor Center and Duke University. Crowell referred to the center as the “go-to place for brain tumors on the East Coast,” adding that “Olympics prestige” and her world-class fitness teamed up to make her a prized patient for the Duke doctors.
“With me coming directly from the Olympic Training Center, the doctors were eager to treat me,” she said. “I'm the guinea pig. I have a subtype of tumor that is basically one in a million. The average age of diagnosis is 55. So they have no data on anyone my age or fitness level who has this kind of brain tumor.
“I feel like I can be optimistic,” Crowell continued. “I'm optimistic about this disease and where my life will go. I certainly have the energy, and I have not slowed down at all. I coach as well, and I've taken on new clients since this all happened.”
Crowell has also taken on a new home in Georgia following her engagement to Novo Nordisk Development Team director Daniel Holt, her boyfriend of more than two years.
“We've been together for two-and-a-half years, so it was about time, honestly,” she said. “We bought a house in Atlanta yesterday. He proposed one week to the day after my brain surgery. In the course of two weeks, I went from training for the Olympics, to having brain surgery, learning that I have brain cancer and then getting engaged. Those two weeks, my entire life changed.”
After the surgery, Crowell had to regain the use of the right side of her body with physical therapy, all while enduring chemo and radiation treatments. But her latest scan in December was clear, she said, and she even got the OK to ride her bike.
“I've actually been told that I can ride and I can race, but I'm in no way fit enough to race,” she said. “It's a different kind of training now. I had to take a step back. I was off the bike for two months, so I've taken the power meter off because that would be too depressing.”
Crowell has been training and racing as an amateur and pro for more than a decade, signing her first pro contract with Team Type 1 in 2009, the year she won the U23 time trial at US nationals. She rode with Team Type 1 through 2011 before moving to Exergy-Twenty16 for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The Florida native had breakout wins last season when she took a stage win and the overall at the Sea Otter Classic, along with a solo win at the Del Ray Beach Criterium in front of eventual USA Crits and NCC overall winner Erica Allar. Crowell also won the Noda Grand Prix Criterium ahead of USPro Champion Jade Wilcoxson, Kimberly Wells and Laura Van Gilder.
Crowell signed with the inaugural UnitedHealthcare women's team just two weeks before her emergency brain surgery, and she praised the team for sticking by her throughout the past few months, even flying her to Arizona for team camp last month.
“Talking with [UnitedHealthcare director] Mike Tamayo and seeing how positive and enthusiastic all my teammates were was very encouraging,” she said.
Crowell is also hoping to work with Team Novo Nordisk owner Phil Southerland and others to pull the support and enthusiasm into some kind of campaign that will bring her team and women's cycling together with cancer patients and survivors.
“I want to do something, and I get very excited when I talk about it,” she said. “I'm not sure what it will entail, because in my mind just raising awareness is not enough. It's in the works, but I don't want to reveal too much. I've been working with Phil, and he's been very supportive and awesome. He has grand ideas, and he doesn't think on a small scale.”
Grand ideas aside, Crowell knows her main focus for the unforeseeable future will be winning her own fight with cancer. All other plans, including Olympics aspirations, are on hold. Although there are a couple of notable exceptions.
“I'm living my life month by month in one sense,” she said. “But on the other hand, we bought a house.”