Not Done Learning
Even after Zach Owen (BS ‘99) found out he had stage IV cancer, he knew it wasn’t his time to go. “I think everyone else thought I was going to die,” Owen said, “[But] I had a strong confirmation that I hadn’t learned what I needed to learn.”
As a father of four, husband, BYU alum, athlete and USAF veteran, living life to the fullest had always been Owen’s goal. In 2015, Owen rode the Triple Bypass, a 120-mile bike ride in the Rocky Mountains that stretches between Evergreen and Avon, Colorado. He was riding alongside his friend of nearly two decades, fellow BYU alum Kevin Amsden (BS ’99). During the ride, Owen started feeling unwell. He got worse and worse, until several days after finishing the ride, Owen was so weak that his wife Ginet (BS ‘99) admitted him to the ER. There, the doctors broke the news to Ginet first: Owen had metastatic melanoma spreading throughout his body.
At best, Owen had two weeks to live. The news was shocking, but according to Owen, there was no sugar-coating: “We caught [our kids] where they were and let them know.” Ginet told them, “Dad has cancer all over. It’s everywhere.”
Still, Owen had faith that he would be okay. “I wasn't worried about it,” Owen says. “I'm not my mother's smartest child. I probably didn't appreciate how grave the situation was, but to be perfectly honest with you . . . I knew I wasn't going to die.”
When Owen got sick, the family was living on Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, and Owen was serving as a commander in the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron. After the diagnosis, Owen was admitted to the nearby University of Colorado Melanoma Skin Cancer Center where he was treated with BRAF and MEK inhibitors. These treatments are intended to suppress cancer raging through a victim’s body. The treatment only works for patients with a specific gene mutation, and Owen’s doctors decided that given the low chances for his survival, there wasn’t time to wait even a week for genetic testing. They rolled the dice and gave him the treatment. It was miraculously successful, and after a few weeks of observation and recovery, Owen was sent home.
But total recovery was still far off. “We knew that it was not a long-term treatment. When that initial medication started wearing off, I was home. I started feeling really sick again and I thought, ‘Oh, no. Here we go again.’ That was, I think, a pretty scary time for our family.” At a holiday party at the base, Owen was sitting at a picnic table when his body suddenly started seizing and he crumpled to the ground. After being rushed to the hospital, Owen learned that he had over 80 tumors in his brain.
Owen was prescribed drugs that help the body’s immune system fight cancer, potentially shrinking tumors dramatically, but without the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. While being treated at the hospital, Owen witnessed other cancer patients suffer through chemotherapy. “It made me more empathetic of struggles that others have,” he says. “I had a great appreciation for how blessed and fortunate I was. . . . It made me a lot less prone to think I had things really bad. . . . [My heart] was softened.” During his recovery, Owen also turned to BYU devotionals for strength. He subscribes to the BYU Speeches podcast. “They’re just incredible. They’re powerful. They’re insightful. . . When I go skiing with my kids, we listen to one or two devotional talks on the way up to the mountains,” Zach says. “I’m continuing my BYU education through devotional talks.”
Eventually, thanks to his treatment, the tumors shrank, and were successfully removed using gamma knife radiosurgery, a procedure that uses highly-focused gamma rays to distort a tumor’s DNA, permanently halting its growth. Now, over two years after his diagnosis, Owen is cancer-free.
After being medically retired from the Air Force, Owen began working in the private sector as a contractor for the US Government, still working in space operations. Ever the optimist, Owen said the retirement may be a blessing. “It’s allowed me to take a job that has a lot less stress and pressure, so I can spend more time with [my family] when I come home from work . . . [and] I can give them some of the attention that they need.” Retirement also means Owen doesn’t have to move his family, so his kids will all be able to graduate from the same high school.
He’s able to bike again, too. “It's kind of one of those things that I did before I got sick, and it's nice to be able to be healthy enough to do it again. It helps me stay in shape,” Owen says. “It’s a good way to go out and see the world, get some exercise, and have an excuse to eat a donut.”