Once facing just 10 days to live, Air Force veteran is back on his bike

November 6th, 2017

From the handlebars of his bicycle, Zach Owen sees a beautiful world.

He can smell the pine and feel the wind that sweeps off the nearby foothills. Every minute, a motion picture unfolds slowly, frame by frame.

In the car, the world whizzes by. On the bike – whether it’s a 40- or 100-mile ride – he sees the big and the small – the landscape – with open eyes.

Zach Owen rides his road bike in the Garden of the Gods. Photo by Mark Reis

“I like to see the seasons change,’’ Zach said. “I like to see the building of schools and when I’m riding at the Air Force Academy, I like to see the turkeys and bear. I like the pavement. I like to see the potholes getting filled.’’

Zach’s road has taken him to magnificent places in his 43 years. The son of an Air Force father and grandfather, Zach, who was not a rich kid, went to the ROTC office at Brigham Young University and asked: “Do you have any scholarships?’’ They did.

He met a girl name Ginet Rose there. She’s became his wife and his forever No. 1. They’ve had seven duty stations in 18 years. Along their journey, the family kept growing: Wyatt, Bode, Summer and Addie.

Zach became a lieutenant colonel and the squadron commander of the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, a group that experiments with satellites. Every day, he and Ginet hustle to get dinner on the table and drive the kids to swimming, soccer, volleyball and church. When he has a chance to ride his bike, he does.

A couple of years ago, in the summer of 2015, Zach took a ride with his buddies through the heart of the Colorado Rockies. The Triple Bypass, which covers 120 miles from Evergreen to Avon, over Loveland and Vail passes, gains 10,000 feet in elevation over the trek.

“It’s a real nice bike ride,’’ Zach said in his understated way.

Zach Owen at home with his wife, Ginet. Photo by Mark Reis

At the end of the Saturday ride the week before the Triple Bypass, Zach re-charged the way he always does – by chugging a glass of chocolate milk. The milk settled in his stomach like a rock. Zach figured he might be lactose intolerant, so he gave up dairy for the week. His appetite wasn’t great, which seemed unusual.

“Something wasn’t right,’’ Ginet said, and she asked Zach, who was then a squadron commander at Schriever Air Force Base, to go to the clinic on the base to see if they could figure out what was wrong. The doctor suspected Zach had an enlarged liver, and he was sent to have a CT scan three days later.

At home that night, Zach didn’t look good. He had an ashy tinge and Ginet insisted on taking her husband to the ER. The news there kept getting worse and worse.

“For the first time ever, he passed out when he was giving blood. They brought him back to the waiting room in a wheelchair, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is happening?’ ’’

Within days, doctors found that Zach had tumors all over his body, around his heart, near his pancreas, stomach, and a tumor in his liver was impeding blood flow, which was causing excruciating pain.

A year before the Triple Bypass ride, Zach had had an early stage melanoma removed from his back. The surgeon had injected a radioactive dye and done a biopsy to see if any lymph nodes were involved but all the tests were negative.

Now, Zach learned that he had metastatic melanoma, a malignant skin cancer that had spread throughout his body. Doctors knew they needed to get Zach as fast as possible to the University of Colorado Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center. More than 500 new people come to the clinic annually from the Rocky Mountain region and distant places including Amsterdam and London.

It had been 13 days since Zach finished the Triple Bypass ride, and now he had stage IV cancer.

Zach Owen’s family and his colleagues in the Air Force have provided essential support. Photo by Mark Reis

“What struck us was here we have a man in his early 40s who is in the Air Force, he was in great shape doing this 120-mile ride and the next week, he was dying,’’ said Dr. Rene Gonzalez, one of the world experts in treating metastatic melanoma.

“I knew that the only chance that he had of surviving were targeted agents, drugs that we had helped develop here at the university,’’ Gonzalez said.

The number of people with melanoma is increasing at a rate faster than any other cancer. Yet, drugs to treat them have only emerged in the last five years. Before these new therapies, 50 percent of patients died within 9 months after a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma.

Dr. Gonzalez knew that fast-acting drugs called BRAF and MEK inhibitors might help Zach. However, the drugs work only if the patient has a BRAF gene mutation. Half the population with metastatic melanoma does.

Dr. Gonzalez knew that waiting for a genetic test could take 10 days. By that time, Zach could have died. He decided to administer the drugs and find out later if Zach, indeed, had the mutation.

“It was either going to work or not, and all of us were willing to roll the dice,’’ Dr. Gonzalez said.

The team knew they had to gamble.

Dr. Gonzalez, whose work has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, led the clinical trials at the University of Colorado Cancer Center that helped establish the drugs as among the first to extend the survival rate for patients with metastatic melanoma.

“In an early study, when we started enrolling, it was spectacular — I’ve never seen anything like it. Patients would take the pill and the next day they would start feeling better,’’ Dr. Gonzalez said.

Krista Treichel, the charge nurse, raced to the pharmacy to get the drugs to have them available as soon as possible.

‘Dad has cancer all over’

As Zach took the medicine, Ginet tried to keep her mind from going to dark places. The thought of losing the man she met when she was only 19 while in college seemed unfathomable.

Zach Owen and his wife, Ginet, at home with their kids, left to right, Wyatt, Addie, Summer and Bodie. Photo by Mark Reis

Zach and Ginet are about as perfect as a couple can be. Zach calls her his No. 1 and every time he tells the story of how they met, Ginet’s face turns crimson.

Back at BYU, long before Facebook, the university published a mini directory with the names, photos, and interests of students.

Zach’s roommate spotted Ginet Rose in the book, but he didn’t ask her out right away. So Zach made his move. He asked Ginet to go a Warren Miller ski film showing in Park City, Utah. Zach and Ginet married in 1997 and graduated in 1999. They have traveled with the Air Force to California, Montana, Colorado, back to California, Washington, D.C., Kansas, and then back to Colorado.

When Zach got sick, the family was living on Schriever Air Force Base, where personnel fly satellite constellations used for GPS, communications and track other satellites. One night, after a long day at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, Ginet gathered her children. She did not sugar-coat the news.

“Dad has cancer all over,’’ she told them. “It’s everywhere.’’

Bode, now 15, will never forget the conversation.

“You just told us,’’ Bode said. “I was worried.’’

In the hospital, Zach lay motionless. He didn’t open his eyes or make a sound. Ginet and Zach’s parents took turns making sure someone was at his bedside every minute. In those critical early hours, Dr. Gonzalez provided comfort. He took Ginet into a conference room and talked with her for 45 minutes. He had a USB zip drive full of data that he popped into a computer.

“It was just the two of us, and he showed me the algorithms of the medication and before and after scans. He was like, ‘It’s going to work.’ He said ‘Just hold on, hold on’ and he checked on us every day.’’

On Zach’s fourth day in the hospital, Ginet and Zach’s mom saw a glimmer of hope.

“We saw him move his foot. We both just started crying because it was such a contrast. He hadn’t moved. And then he lifted his leg up and it was like, ‘oh my goodness.’ ’’

Soon after, Zach sat up in bed and then got out of bed and walked. Two weeks after his arrival at University of Colorado Hospital, Zach went home to Colorado Springs. An occupational therapist came to the house and helped him do simple exercises. Eventually, he grew stronger.

Back at Schriever, Zach’s military family sent well wishes via video, cards and held a 5K to show the family that they had the support of the base community — what Zach would later describe as “incredibly kind gestures.’’

Zach had regular scans of his body to see whether the tumors had returned. By October 2015, after only two months on the drugs, he started feeling sick again. In December at a holiday party at Schriever, Zach was sitting at a picnic table when his body suddenly started seizing and he crumpled to the ground. Paramedics rushed him to UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. A brain scan showed bad news: Zach had 80 to 90 tumors in his brain.

“It was pretty bad,’’ Zach said. “They call them metastases.’’

While news that the melanoma had spread to Zach’s brain was devastating, Dr. Gonzalez pulled new drugs that the University of Colorado Cancer Center helped develop from his arsenal.

He prescribed Ipilimumab and Nivolumab, two drugs that harness the body’s own immune system to fight tumors. Zach received the drugs through an infusion every three weeks for four doses and then every two weeks. Dr. Gonzalez warned that the drugs could be slow to act. Zach likely would get worse before he got better. After the first round, Zach improved dramatically and after the second round, the tumors had shrunk even more.

Dr. Robert Breeze, a neurosurgeon at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, helped treat Zach’s tumors. Breeze used highly-targeted Gamma Knife radiation to shrink the brain tumors.

Today, 27 months after his diagnosis, Zach has no cancer in his body and only residual, treatment-related changes in his brain.

He attributes his survival to a talented group of people who worked perfectly together.

“It’s not just Dr. Gonzalez, it’s the team that he works with up there,’’ Zach said. “The nurse practitioners, residents, fellows, the neurosurgery team – to a person – everybody in that hospital is amazing. Our first nurse, Krista, she was amazing. Dr. Gonzalez brought on another nurse named Ashley, and I’m quite certain that if Ashley was in Congress, we wouldn’t have any problems. Whether it was health care or needing budgets approved, it wouldn’t matter. She is just fantastic.’’

In January, Zach developed a side effect to the drugs and he struggles with bouts of colitis.

“In a weird sort of way, it’s a good side effect because it shows that the drugs are attacking. The drugs train the body’s immune system to go after the cancer, so even though I am no longer being treated, my body is still going after the cancer.’’

About a year ago, the Air Force decided to medically retire Zach, a move that he appealed, but lost. He works now for a defense contractor in Colorado Springs.

Ever the optimist, Zach said the retirement may be a blessing. His kids won’t have to make any more moves, and they can all graduate from the same high school.

Zach Owen pauses during a bike ride. Photo by Mark Reis

Dr. Gonzalez said Zach is “doing fine. He’s essentially back to normal, and he is living his life.’’ Early research shows that if a patient is still alive three years after receiving the drugs, he or she likely will still be alive 10 years or more later.

Cancer has taught Zach, Ginet, and their kids many things. They’re not perfect, but they have certainly gained a better perspective of day-to-day annoyances. They’re more empathetic toward others, no matter the person’s challenge. And they know for certain that there are a lot of good people out there – many, many.

“I could say that I’ve learned a little about gratitude,’’ Zach said. “I know that I still make a lot of mistakes, and that becoming a better human being is not a process that happens overnight.’’

This weekend, Zach will take a seat behind the handlebars of his bike and he will ride. He’ll see the leaves changing and maybe a bear or a turkey. He’ll appreciate it all, especially the pavement that stretches ahead of him, frame by frame.

About the author

Erin Emery is a writer for UCHealth and is based in Colorado Springs.