If anyone knows grit, it’s Chaunte Lowe. The 37-year-old high jumper has competed in four Olympics through three pregnancies. She brought home a bronze medal in 2008 and still holds the American record for the women’s high jump (both indoor and outdoor). And now she’s training for a mind-boggling fifth Olympic appearance—while facing a breast cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, and a mastectomy. So yeah, she’s no quitter.
Lowe found a “rice-size” lump in her breast in 2018, but a doctor initially wrote it off. Lowe was exceptionally healthy and young—not the typical profile of a breast cancer patient. But as an Olympic athlete, she was also exceptionally in tune with her body. “There was something internally tugging at me, telling me, ‘No. Pay attention to me,’” she says. Eleven months later, she went back for another scan—the lump had tripled in size.
In 2019, Lowe was diagnosed with triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer that disproportionately affects Black women. “I felt like I needed to say goodbye to my kids. Everything that I hadn’t done with them as a mom, everything I hadn’t done with my husband as a wife, flashed before my eyes so quickly, and I just instantly felt a ton of regret,” Lowe says. “That’s the thing that caused me to say, ‘No. Uhuh. We have to fight.’”
She made plans for a mastectomy and several months of chemotherapy. And then a comeback. By the time she finished chemo, she’d have about six months to get healthy and in Olympic shape for the trials ahead of the originally planned Tokyo 2020 Games. It was a gargantuan thing to ask of her mind and her body, but she’d had plenty of practice with that. “The biggest obstacle that I’ve ever faced, which helped prepare me for that, was being a year out from the Olympics—not one, not two, but three times—and finding out that I was expecting a child. The timing could not have been more imperfect,” Lowe says. Each time she had a choice: “Lay on the ground and cry about it, or come up with a plan to figure out how we can get this done,” she says. “And figure out what I needed to do to not only become a mother that’s going to grow a human, but to also become an elite athlete that’s going to be prepared to compete at the Olympic stage.”
Each time her process was the same: Write a vision. Make a plan. Sacrifice for the plan. Execute the plan. Cancer treatment was no different. “I knew that this process worked—it worked to make four Olympic teams, it worked to break the American record, it worked to win a world championship, it worked to win an Olympic medal,” says Lowe, who is now a partner of the American Cancer Society and Stand Up to Cancer.
Her vision, once the reality of the diagnosis had set it, was immediately clear: Survive—and then make it to Tokyo, as much for the chance to compete again as for the platform to talk about the importance of early detection. “If I could at least raise the question, ‘Should I be talking to my doctor about this to get screened?’ then maybe I could help save lives,” she says.
So she trained through chemo and then through the uncertainty of the pandemic, her chemotherapy-ravaged immune system further complicating her ability to work out during the earliest days of the virus. “There was no way to even order equipment because everything was so backordered when everyone was trying to furnish their home gyms. I heard about athletes jumping over fences at midnight and taking equipment back to their house just to train,” she says. “It was chaos. But there was also a sense of relief that we could prioritize our health.”
Lowe is currently cancer-free. “I’m very hopeful and optimistic that the early detection really played a huge part,” she says. In the early days of the pandemic, she was afraid to go to the doctor, the risk of exposing herself to the coronavirus too terrifying. “More than one-third of people in the U.S. have missed a routine cancer screening due to COVID-19. But I realized these appointments are important—they are checkpoints for your progress to make sure you’re on track for your goal of being cancer-free,” she says. Lowe has survived, and now the second part of her vision—a fifth Olympics—is well within reach.